Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Debate on the President's Address: 14th Parliament of Singapore

Debate kicks off with focus on Singapore core and values
DPM Heng Swee Keat: Singapore must adapt to change but stay true to its values
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

As Covid-19 ravages lives and economies around the world, Singapore will have to adapt to change while staying true to the values that helped it progress over the years, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday at the start of a week-long debate on the President's Address in a new term of Parliament.

This includes remaining open to trade, investment and talent as a key global node with deep connections to the rest of the world.

Doing so would help draw investments and create good jobs that Singaporeans can compete fairly for. That, he argued, was the best way to serve the interests of Singaporeans.

"Our starting point is that our economic strategies must serve the interests of Singaporeans," he said.

That is why manpower policies, such as on Employment Passes, are being adapted to ensure that the interests of Singaporeans are upheld in the face of economic disruption. But he warned against the temptation to turn inwards.

"The best way is to ensure that this little red dot - with no natural resources of any kind, but with a determined, hard-working, forward-looking people - remains useful and relevant to the world," said Mr Heng.

"We do this by keeping our economy vibrant and competitive, so that Singaporeans and other people choose to be here, to invest and do business, thereby creating good jobs and opportunities for all of us."

The Government will redouble its efforts to ensure that Singapore workers will be armed with the skills to grab the opportunities that come their way, helping them achieve their fullest potential, Mr Heng added.

Some of the key points in Mr Heng's speech - adapting to change and strengthening the Singapore core of the workforce - were also themes that dominated discussion on day one of the debate in the House.

Taking up the theme, labour MPs made plain that discrimination against local workers will not be tolerated.

Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer), who delivered the opening address for the debate, called on the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to consider further raising the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Pass (EP) holders for two sectors, infocomm technology and professional services. His call came days after the Government announced the second rise in salary thresholds of EP holders this year.

Mr Tay, who is an assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, also urged the Government to consider tougher measures such as an EP quota.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng emphasised that Singapore "will not allow companies to practise wanton discrimination against our local talent", and that MOM has been stepping up its surveillance and enforcement.

But he cautioned against curtailing manpower supply through measures like a quota system, which he said is not a long-term solution.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh called on the Government to go further, such as with an anti-discrimination law that will penalise egregious employers.

Delivering his maiden speech as Singapore's first formally designated Leader of the Opposition, Mr Singh also charged that the lack of information on a complex issue like foreign manpower numbers has created "a vacuum (that) has given space for a more toxic conversation to ferment".

Reiterating his call for more data, Mr Singh said how much the opposition can do depends on the quantity and quality of information the Government puts out. He also urged the Government to "put out more information without being asked to".

Both People's Action Party and opposition MPs also touched on President Halimah Yacob's point in her speech last week that Singapore must evolve its politics, and the need to find a way to deliver effective government while accommodating the growing diversity of views here.

Leader of the House Indranee Rajah cautioned against greater diversity of views and more robust debates in Parliament leading to greater polarisation among Singaporeans.

"Experience elsewhere shows that unity in diversity is not an assured outcome," she said. "Our goal should be to harness this diversity of views in a constructive manner, so that we can as a Parliament better serve the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore."

DPM Heng put it this way: "This House must fulfil its duty, to articulate and debate policy options, to build a better life for our people, and to advance Singapore's place in the world. This is the mandate that has been entrusted to us by Singaporeans.

"I trust that all of us, whether in Government or the opposition, will share this common sense of mission, to serve in the best interests of Singaporeans and Singapore."

Singapore must hold true to values as it adapts: Heng Swee Keat
As nation evolves its social safety nets, people must stay rooted to openness, multiculturalism
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

Despite the global crisis and accelerated change caused by Covid-19, Singapore can survive and thrive if it embraces change with courage and confidence, while holding true to the values that have helped the country to progress all these years, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat told Parliament yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on the President's Address, he noted that the economy will change at a much more rapid pace, with disruption to jobs becoming more common.

But as Singapore evolves its social safety nets and strives to keep inequality in check, Singaporeans must remain rooted to the country's values and identity, and sense of unity as a people, he added.

Values like openness, multiculturalism and self-determination have served Singapore well and remain crucial, but it will take more effort to maintain a sense of common purpose as society becomes more diverse, said Mr Heng.

New differences along the lines of identity, socio-economic status and political beliefs will emerge, while there will always be different perspectives on subjects like race, language and religion, and the rights and obligations of citizenship.

"It is essential that we rise above our differences and find common ground," he said.

"We may not always agree, but we cannot afford to let our disagreement turn into division. Otherwise, change will cause a rupture in society as we have seen elsewhere."

Mr Heng gave the assurance that the Government will adapt social safety nets to sustain the promise of progress for every Singaporean.

A job remains the best form of welfare, he said, adding that the Government will continue to invest in people and match them to new opportunities to bring out the best in them.

At the same time, social spending has tripled over the last 15 years. This will rise as the population ages.

The shift to "gig economy" jobs, for instance, means Singapore's support for self-employed persons must evolve, even as work to uplift lower-wage workers continues.

While the Government will keep an open mind to proposed ideas, such as a minimum wage, universal basic income and unemployment insurance, people must recognise there are no magic bullets, he said. Each of these ideas has its merits but also unintended effects, he added, cautioning against looking for "what may appear to be costless solutions".

"Somehow, someone else will have to pay for these schemes. There are trade-offs," he said. "If we want higher social spending, taxes will have to go up. Or it will mean spending more at the expense of future generations, like what many countries are doing by raising debt."

While social safety nets will be strengthened, this must be done in a way that reinforces - not undermines - individual effort, he added.

This should be funded equitably and sustainably, and strengthen people's capacity to both succeed and help others succeed, he said.

"A social safety net cannot become a set of shackles. It should not hold down those who started with less. It should not create dependency, such that people who get fish for today, never learn how to fish for food tomorrow," he said.

Mr Heng said a well-designed social safety net protects the vulnerable, invests in human and societal capital, and provides a means for those who fall down to bounce back.

"It supports every generation to have aspirations and dreams, and for everyone to ask: What more can we do for one another?"

He was also glad that amid the pandemic, many have stepped up to support others. He cited the Masks Sewn With Love project, where volunteers sewed over 100,000 masks for vulnerable families.

How well Singapore emerges from the present crisis depends on its ability to adapt while holding true to its values, said Mr Heng.

"We are both a city state and a global metropolis - maintaining this 'dual identity' will not be easy," he said. "But as long as we are clear about our values and what holds us together, it will be a source of strength that opens up new opportunities."

He emphasised the Government's commitment to building deeper partnerships with citizens, citing the Singapore Together movement launched last year to harness diverse ideas and shape a shared future.

He shared how his fellow East Coast GRC MPs recently engaged Ms Samantha Thian and a group of volunteers who regularly clean the beach at East Coast Park, and followed up with them last Saturday via video chat to discuss ways to create a more sustainable Singapore. "I am very impressed by their passion and commitment (and) we agreed to work together to turn their good ideas into action," said Mr Heng.

Such partnerships foster a culture of respect and expand the common space, strengthening Singapore's capacity to adapt, he noted.

"We want to build on these efforts too, as we recover from Covid-19," he said, adding that this was why the Emerging Stronger Conversations have been convened to give Singaporeans a shared opportunity to reflect on their Covid-19 experience and articulate how they can take Singapore forward together.

Firms will not be allowed to wantonly discriminate against Singapore workers, says Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

In the current difficult economic climate, it is all the more important that Singaporeans are given fair opportunities to find meaningful work. Companies will not be allowed to practise wanton discrimination against local workers, Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said yesterday.

He told Parliament that Ministry of Manpower officers are working "doubly hard" on this front, and have been stepping up their scrutiny and enforcement actions.

The Government will give Singaporean job seekers a stronger boost "by working with businesses to give more serious consideration to Singaporeans when hiring, especially those who are wiling to adjust their expectations and adapt", he added.

Businesses are also expected to strive harder to strengthen their Singaporean core, he said in his maiden speech in the House.

But he reassured employers that Singapore will not turn away global talents and investments, as skilled foreign workers allow it to remain globally competitive and provide learning opportunities for citizens.

Dr Tan, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Trade and Industry, made these points as he pledged to support two key groups of workers - young graduates and mature workers - whom he said had a "growing concentration of disengaged Singaporeans".

"We must always remember that our workers are the heart of our economy, and we must help our workforce to emerge stronger from this crisis," he said.

Mature workers are "near and dear" to him, Dr Tan, 55, added. "Our mature workers in their 40s and 50s have contributed a good part of their lives to our economy," he said. They possess "a significant treasure of experiential knowledge and practice wisdom that cannot be replaced by or gleaned from academic pursuits or qualifications".

As they strive to prepare for new job roles, employers should consider them fairly and offer them good opportunities for improvement and progression, he added.

As for young graduates, Dr Tan said he has received feedback that they are worried about, among other things, getting a job in the current labour market. His message: "Although you may seem to have been dealt a difficult starting hand, we will do all we can to ensure that your generation will still flourish and fulfil your potential."

He also urged all job seekers, regardless of age and background, to be realistic in their expectations and to keep an open mind about available opportunities.

To continue to do well and thrive, Singapore must be exceptional, he said.

"Exceptional in our dreams and aspirations, exceptional in our execution and implementation, and most important of all, exceptional in the way we care for one another and carry one another."

Responding to a question from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on whether stepping up action entailed raising the budget for the anti-discrimination watchdog Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), Dr Tan said the ministry is looking at beefing up resources to scrutinise unfair hiring practices.

As for whether the ministry was still seeing errant or uncooperative employers in spite of the Fair Consideration Framework, introduced in 2014 to ensure fair hiring for Singaporeans, Dr Tan said that besides monitoring such firms, MOM will work with them to understand how they had too many foreign workers.

"That is the kind of engagement I was alluding to. Suffice to say, today we have stepped up, we are all working very hard to make sure that the companies work with the relevant authorities to ensure that fair hiring, non-discriminatory practices are more prevalent," he added.

Labour MP Patrick Tay calls for higher salary criteria for Employment Pass applicants in Singapore's ICT, professional services sectors
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

Less than a week after it was announced that the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Pass (EP) holders will be increased, labour MP Patrick Tay (Pioneer) urged the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to consider further raising this minimum pay for two sectors: infocomm technology and professional services.

Professional services include law, accountancy and consultancy.

The two sectors generally have more companies on the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) watch list for potentially discriminatory hiring practices, Mr Tay, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), said in Parliament yesterday.

This was among several suggestions he made on strengthening the Singaporean core, in his speech that started the parliamentary debate on the President's Address.

"The disruption brought about by Covid-19 and the resulting economic recession has surfaced ground concerns on the increased competition for jobs and employment. In this regard, we must uphold our pillar of meritocracy. There must be fairness and equal treatment and assessment of workers, which is also a fundamental International Labour Organisation commitment," he said.

Singapore has announced two increases this year in the salary threshold for EP holders. The second was announced last Thursday and will start from today for new applications, raising the threshold to $4,500, from $3,900.

For the first time, the ministry set a higher bar for the financial services sector, with the minimum qualifying salary for new applicants going up to $5,000 from Dec 1.

The changes affect pass renewals from May next year.

Mr Tay said that since the announcement, union leaders and professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) have told him they worry employers would merely raise the salaries or repackage the compensation and benefits of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) to meet the rules, and retain them.

Singaporean staff performing similar or the same jobs as the foreign PMETs may not get a similar pay hike, resulting in "serious parity issues", he added.

He pledged that unions would watch closely the actions of unionised companies, and encouraged workers in non-unionised companies to be union members to get better protection.

Strengthening the Singaporean core of PMETs must be addressed at all levels of the hierarchy, he said.

Some large companies with deep pockets, he noted, may hire more Singaporeans at junior levels to make the firm look better in terms of the proportion of locals it employs.

The hiring culture and mindsets need to be changed across the board, he added.

Among other things, Mr Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, also suggested the Government impose mandatory audits and penalties on companies that do not improve over time, such as removing preferential tax rates or not awarding them public sector contracts.

He stressed that NTUC is not advocating for closed-door policies. But with some 1,200 firms on the FCF watch list, it is clear that market failure exists in the current employment framework, he said.

"A healthy dose of market intervention is essential to ensure fair play," he said, adding that this also fosters a sense of belonging and identity among Singaporeans.

He was among more than 10 MPs who spoke on the hot button issue during yesterday's debate.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) urged the Government to require companies to publish the selection criteria for jobs, not just the job vacancy itself. In doing so, the criteria can be scrutinised.

Like Mr Tay, she suggested implementing a dependency ratio or quota for EP holders in companies, with different ceilings and salary levels for different sectors, and to make sure senior managers are accountable for the hiring of these EP holders.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) suggested the Government expand the Capability Transfer Programme to nudge companies to set targets for firms to transfer skills and knowledge from foreign to local workers. This programme subsidises the cost of bringing in trainers from abroad to equip local workers with skills and knowledge.

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), speaking from her personal experience in working for two foreign multinationals for almost 30 years, said working with foreigners can help Singaporeans develop themselves and scale up large projects.

This, however, hinges on fair employment practices, she stressed, adding that employers must also have clear development plans to grow the Singaporean core and build a pipeline of locals to fill senior roles.

Greater diversity in Parliament should not lead to polarity of country or people: Leader of the House Indranee Rajah
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

Having more opposition MPs in Parliament will mean a greater diversity of views and more robust debate, said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah yesterday.

But Singapore should work to ensure that this diversity does not lead to polarity of country or people, she added in a ministerial statement on the duties and privileges of the Leader of the Opposition.

"Experience elsewhere shows that unity in diversity is not an assured outcome," said Ms Indranee, who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

"Our goal should be to harness this diversity of views in a constructive manner, so that we can as a Parliament better serve the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore."

There are 12 opposition MPs in Parliament - 10 elected MPs from the Workers' Party (WP) and two Non-Constituency MPs from the Progress Singapore Party.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced after the recent general election that WP chief Pritam Singh will be formally designated as Leader of the Opposition (LO).

With more opposition MPs in the House, reflecting the strong desire among Singaporeans for a greater diversity of views in politics, it is "timely and appropriate" that the position of LO be more formally recognised, Ms Indranee said.

Mr Singh will sit opposite PM Lee in Parliament, similar to the practice in other countries that recognise this role, she added.

She noted that the post of LO is not provided for in Singapore's Constitution or the Standing Orders of Parliament. The Government had considered the conventions and practices of other Westminster-style parliamentary systems, such as those in the United Kingdom and Australia, in deciding the LO's duties and privileges, she added.

"What I have set out... reflects what we have adapted to suit our current political and parliamentary context," she said.

As LO, Mr Singh will have the right to ask the lead question to ministers on policies, Bills and motions, subject to existing speaking convention and at the discretion of the Speaker of Parliament. The House also moved a motion to double the time he has for his speeches to 40 minutes - equivalent to that given to political office-holders.

He will be given an office in Parliament, staff support and an allowance that is double that of an elected MP, or $385,000 a year.

"With more opposition MPs in Parliament, we hope the opposition will play a bigger role in putting up alternative views and proposals for debate," Ms Indranee said, as she set out the LO's duties.

Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC) will be responsible for leading the opposition in presenting alternative views in parliamentary debates on policies, Bills and motions. He will also lead and organise the scrutiny of government positions and actions in Parliament.

In addition, he will be consulted on the appointment of opposition MPs to select committees, including standing select committees like the Public Accounts Committee.

He may also be called upon to attend official state functions, and will from time to time receive confidential briefings by the Government to ensure better understanding across both sides of the House on issues such as national security and external relations.

"The role of the Leader of the Opposition in Singapore will evolve with our politics," Ms Indranee said. "It must always be the ambition of this House to live up to the expectations of our people and create a political system that is focused on serving Singapore and Singaporeans to the best of our abilities."

She added that she looks forward to working with Mr Singh to achieve these outcomes.

Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin said he looks forward to working with Ms Indranee and Mr Singh to ensure the "productive and orderly conduct" of parliamentary business and debates. "I'm also confident that under their capable leadership and cooperation across the aisle, the decorum, dignity and honour of the House will be upheld by all members at all times."

WP won't form shadow Cabinet, but will scrutinise policies in 5 key areas, says WP chief Pritam Singh
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2020

The Workers' Party (WP) does not have enough MPs in Parliament to form a shadow Cabinet, but will organise itself to scrutinise policies in areas important to Singaporeans, said WP chief and Leader of the Opposition (LO) Pritam Singh.

The WP will also do its best to raise issues ruling party MPs may not, and offer alternative policies - even if it is limited by the resources it can muster compared with the Government, he added.

He mapped out the party's plans for this term during the debate on the President's Address in Parliament yesterday.

His speech focused on "certain things that have changed in Singapore", things that must not change and suggestions on some things that should change. He listed five areas the WP will focus on:

• Health, ageing and retirement adequacy;

• Jobs, businesses and the economy;

• Education, inequality and the cost of living;

• Housing, transport and infrastructure; and

• National sustainability, a broad area about how to ensure Singapore continues to thrive far into the future for successive generations.

Mr Singh said his appointment as LO was part of the changes happening in Singapore politics.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the new role after the WP won 10 seats in the July 10 polls - including Sengkang, its second group representation constituency.

Yesterday, Mr Singh said the formalising of the LO role has created expectations and there needs to be clarity about "what the opposition can and cannot do".

Singaporeans, he added, expect the WP and the opposition in general to play a constructive role in Singapore politics. "It should advance the interests of all Singaporeans, whether they may be in the majority or minority on any particular issue, without fear or favour," he said.

But with just 10 MPs in Parliament, he said the WP does not have the same resources as the Government and it was important for Singaporeans to take this into account.

As the LO, he will get the funds to hire three more legislative assistants and one more administrative assistant. All other MPs have one legislative assistant and one secretarial assistant.

But Mr Singh, who is an MP for Aljunied GRC, said the Government has at its disposal 146,000 full-time officers in the public service, of whom 85,000 are civil servants.

Given this, the LO's office "will not have the breadth and depth of the party in government, in coming up with alternative policies", he said. Nonetheless, the WP will offer meaningful policy alternatives like redundancy insurance, he added.

He also reiterated his argument that how much the opposition can do also depends on the quantity and quality of information the Government releases.

He said his party intended to make targeted inquiries of government departments and agencies as information was essential for the crafting of alternative policies.

He also urged the Government to consider how it can put out more information without being asked, particularly information and indicators benchmarked against other countries. Acknowledging that some data could be sensitive, he said the Government would have to find new ways of dealing with such difficult matters.

Mr Singh also clarified his role in relation to the two Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MPs Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai. Similar to other Westminster systems, he said he will not represent all opposition parties as the LO, as the PSP has its own principles and ideology, which are distinct from those of the WP.

He added that he looked forward to working with the two NCMPs "where our positions match and are in the best interests of Singaporeans". He said the WP will set its own standards and chart an independent course, something that it has done over the years in the face of resistance even from "many personalities in the opposition camp".

The WP's position, he said, is that it owes its loyalty to the President, the Republic of Singapore and the people. "We have proven that we do not oppose the Government for the sake of opposing," he added.

In his 33-minute speech, he also spoke about things in Singapore he said must not change, including the nation's historical position as an open trading nation, the Government's position on defence and foreign policy, and values that have become synonymous with Singapore, like multiracialism and the culture of abhorring corruption. He pledged the WP's support for the Government's position in these areas.

He also made suggestions about things that should change. Describing Singapore as a "glass half-full that can be topped up", he said: "There is much that is right and which should remain the same. But there is also much that can and should change."

Among his suggestions was the formation of more Select Committees to deal with potentially divisive issues. "This House and the Government need to reframe the public narrative on our more pressing issues," he said.

Summing up, Mr Singh said: "The WP will seek to play a positive role in the national conversation both in and out of Parliament to leave behind a Singapore our children and future generations can be proud of."

House takes up issue of foreigners competing for local jobs
Ministers assure MPs that Singaporeans benefit from country staying open to world
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Sep 2020

The theme of the Singaporean core in the workforce continued to dominate discussion in Parliament yesterday, with the focus turning to white-collar jobs and invoking an emotional response from Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Once again, the issue boiled down to whether enough such jobs - especially in the financial sector - were going to Singaporeans, and whether Singapore would suffer any backlash by limiting the number of foreigners in senior positions in the sector.

Mrs Teo, who teared up at one point during her speech, said quotas for Employment Passes (EPs) were not advisable.

It was a highly charged issue, in which statistics and logic could not address all of the grievances borne out of experiences on the ground.

As the debate into the President's Address continued into its second day, the House heard that for every EP or S Pass given out in the last five years, about four more locals, including Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs), took up jobs involving professionals, managers, executives and technicians. Meanwhile, the population of PRs remained stable at about 500,000, and many of them were spouses of Singaporeans.

Despite the numbers showing that the situation was under control, there was no lack of examples from MPs of residents who found themselves surrounded by foreigners in multinational companies, or who were passed over for job opportunities despite having relevant work experience.

They urged the Government to tamp down foreign competition for these positions, proffering suggestions ranging from quotas for work passes to imposing a timeline for talent transfer.

Mrs Teo said imposing quotas on EPs would be unwise and it would be better to use salary requirements to ensure that companies can access foreign professionals of the right quality, while committing to building up their local staff over time.

"Without such flexibility, many of the top-quality investments would have been lost to our competitors, and the job opportunities along with them," she said.

The financial services sector in particular came under scrutiny.

Figures released recently by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and cited yesterday by Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung, showed that 44 per cent of senior roles in the sector are filled by Singaporeans, sparking questions about whether this was good enough.

Of the rest of the people in these roles, 20 per cent are PRs, and 36 per cent are foreigners who hold work passes.

Mr Ong, who was speaking in his capacity as board member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, said the number should not be interpreted as Singaporeans getting the short end of the stick, as the absolute number of Singaporeans in senior roles had grown from 1,700 to 2,600 in the past five years though the proportion had remained largely the same.

He also said that when financial institutions bring their functions to Singapore, Singaporeans gain global and regional expertise which prepares them for similar roles overseas in global firms.

Even then, MPs wondered if there were gaps in the education and training systems that needed to be plugged so that more Singaporeans can take on these roles.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) said that it would be more meaningful to have employers hiring Singaporeans out of preference, and not just out of obligation to keep within the laws.

Mr Ong said that many Singaporeans understood the international character of the Republic's financial centre. "But (they) want to see Singaporeans do better, with greater assurance of fair hiring practices that put them on a level playing field. These are valid concerns," he added.

Pointing to the increase in the minimum salary to qualify for EPs, and the various government schemes to reward companies that hire Singaporeans, as well as programmes to train Singaporeans for top jobs, Mrs Teo also said: "We must therefore not miss the wood for the trees, by focusing narrowly on keeping foreigners out, and missing the larger picture of growing the pie and giving Singaporeans the chance of the best slice."

But she stressed that each and every instance of discrimination erodes trust in the system, and called on employers to be fair to Singaporeans when hiring or retrenching.

"What we lose then is not just a job opportunity for a local, but the trust that the system is fair, that the odds were not stacked against people who are trying," she added.

Both ministers acknowledged that the statistics were not always congruent with experiences on the ground, and pledged that the Government would do its best to protect workers.

Tearing up as she addressed workers directly in her speech, Mrs Teo said: "We know that in your hearts, you care most about the well-being of your families and loved ones. You want to do well not just for yourself, but for them.

"Please know that you too are always in our hearts," she said, pledging that the ministry will journey with them no matter how long the crisis lasts.

"However tough it may be, we will help you bounce back. Our mission is to help each one of you emerge stronger, by never giving up hope, and by working with employers in Singapore to treat you fairly, to make your hard work bear fruit."

Employment Pass quota not unthinkable, but probably unwise, says Josephine Teo
Pay requirements better to ensure firms hire quality foreign staff as they build up local staff
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 2 Sep 2020

Imposing quotas on higher-end foreign professionals on Employment Passes (EPs) is not unthinkable, but such a move would probably be unwise, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told Parliament.

It is much better to use salary requirements to ensure companies can access foreign professionals of the right quality while committing to build up their local staff over time, she said yesterday.

"Without such flexibility, many of the top-quality investments would have been lost to our competitors, and the job opportunities along with them," she said.

Economic agencies also need flexibility when competing for the most cutting-edge investments and sophisticated activities to be moved to Singapore, she added.

Mrs Teo was responding to MPs in the parliamentary debate on the President's Address, and outlined the Government's considerations in managing the foreign workforce here as well as its efforts to support Singaporean professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), especially those in their 40s and 50s.

"We must therefore not miss the wood for the trees, by focusing narrowly on keeping foreigners out, and missing the larger picture of growing the pie and giving Singaporeans the chance of the best slice," she said.

Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) and Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) had on Monday suggested introducing tiered quotas for EP holders based on different pay levels or sectors, which would limit the share of a firm's employees who can be on EPs.

Mrs Teo said that at the work permit level, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) uses levies on top of quotas to regulate demand because the numbers of workers are large - 737,200 as at last December, not including domestic helpers.

There are also quotas limiting a firm's share of foreigners on S Passes, who are those earning at least $2,400 a month.

But at the EP level where the numbers are not as big - there were 190,000 working here in June - the key objective is to regulate quality, said Mrs Teo.

The minimum qualifying salary for new EP applications rose to $4,500 yesterday, up from $3,900. The change affects pass renewals from May next year.

With the adjustment in salary requirement, lower-end EP holders will be pushed down to the S Pass level where they are subject to the quota, something which levies do not do, said Mrs Teo.

As for employers who falsely declare salaries to meet the higher bar, and then claw back money from foreign employees under the table, the answer is to strengthen enforcement, she added.

In the last five years, MOM has taken action in over 1,200 cases of false declarations or kickbacks, which led to 388 convictions through prosecution, she said.

She noted the anxiety and heightened sense of insecurity about jobs, amid the severe impact of Covid-19.

Although unemployment has not reached the highs of past recessions, it is not a given that this will remain so, she said.

In the last severe economic downturn amid the 2009 global financial crisis, Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP) managed to grow by 0.1 per cent after a $20.5 billion Resilience Package.

This year, the Government has introduced four Budgets with support costing close to $100 billion.

But GDP is expected to shrink by 5 per cent to 7 per cent this year.

Said Mrs Teo: "We are still in the middle of a storm, and it will be some time before we see 'green shoots'."

The number of EP and S Pass holders has fallen by 22,000 between January and July this year, she added.

Still, said the minister, in this period of great uncertainty, middle-aged local PMETs are especially concerned about being disadvantaged during retrenchments compared with younger foreign colleagues, and being passed over in job applications.

Mrs Teo said MOM actively monitors retrenchment practices, and looks into aspects such as whether the employer tried other cost-saving measures before considering retrenchments and whether the company's Singaporean core was weakened as a result of the retrenchment exercise.

She noted that sometimes, older workers comprise a larger share of workers retrenched by a firm because their skill sets are less relevant to core functions.

But there has generally not been a weakening of the Singaporean core in cases seen by the ministry, she said. For instance, when Resorts World Sentosa laid off workers in July, foreign employees had to meet a higher performance bar than locals to be retained.

There are also schemes to further support local PMETs, such as the new $1 billion Jobs Growth Incentive, the nation's "biggest push ever" to help employers stretch their manpower budgets and hire more locals, she added.

Treatment of local staff considered when firms apply for EP, S Pass, says Josephine Teo
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 2 Sep 2020

One healthcare multinational the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) penalised this year rejected local job applicants for not meeting requirements that were not even stated in the job advertisement.

A probe found that it did not shortlist or interview any of the seven local candidates who met the job requirements, and deemed two candidates "overqualified".

The penalty: It will not be able to hire Employment Pass (EP) holders or renew existing ones for a year, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

"To stay in business, they will have to recruit more locals, something they should have done all along," she added.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Mrs Teo said discrimination against qualified local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) will be taken into account by MOM when it evaluates EP and S Pass applications.

Of all possible infringements, this offends Singaporeans the most - that they are qualified but lose out to a foreign candidate who does not appear to be better, she added.

Mrs Teo also responded to calls to reveal the names of firms on the Fair Consideration Framework watchlist, made up of about 1,200 firms that MOM is scrutinising for potentially discriminatory hiring practices.

Such an approach, she said, would be counter-productive. The firms on the list have not flouted the rules but have an unusually high share of foreign PMETs compared with the rest of the industry, she added.

Until they improve, their work-pass applications will be rejected or held back, while the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices helps them hire more locals, Mrs Teo said.

Some firms improve. For instance, one firm's local office sought special approval from its overseas headquarters to expand the recruitment criteria to take into account local conditions, she said.

Another firm, which deals with high net-worth clients from a particular country - with language and cultural preferences - agreed that roles that did not require dealing directly with clients could be filled by locals.

Mrs Teo said: "If we had vilified these firms instead through a name-and-shame approach, we would have frustrated their efforts to expand local hiring. This is ultimately counter-productive.

"Our alternative approach of scrutinising and engaging employers is highly resource-intensive but, in fact, a more effective way to get businesses to reshape their HR practices."

When evaluating EP and S Pass applications, MOM will also place additional emphasis on whether the firm has supported its local PMET staff, as part of efforts to ensure fair hiring. Mrs Teo called the move a "tilt in support of local PMETs that goes beyond fair consideration".

It will also consider whether the firm has responded to government agencies' efforts to help it recruit and train local PMETs.

Mrs Teo said MOM takes all feedback from whistle-blowers seriously, and called on employers to commit to fair-hiring practices and responsible retrenchment.

She said: "No amount of enforcement resources will catch enough employers if they are determined to hide.

"What we lose then is not just a job opportunity for a local, but the trust that the system is fair, that the odds were not stacked against people who are trying."

Josephine Teo spars with opposition MPs in debate on PMET jobs
NCMP's response to growth data on jobs, Employment Passes, S Passes sparks debate
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Sep 2020

A question posed by Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai sparked a protracted debate in Parliament yesterday, with several opposition MPs questioning Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on the Government's efforts to protect local PMETs from being displaced by foreigners.

In her speech, Mrs Teo said the number of locals in professional, manager, executive and technician (PMET) jobs has grown by about 35,000 a year on average between 2014 and last year. In the same period, the number of Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders grew by fewer than 9,000 a year, she added.

Mr Leong, from the Progress Singapore Party, asked how many people became permanent residents (PRs) and new citizens during that period. He added that previously reported data put the number at around 50,000 a year.

Mrs Teo acknowledged that around 20,000 people become citizens every year, while another 30,000 become PRs. "I think what Mr Leong is trying to suggest is that all of your gains are meaningless because they are all occupied by PRs and citizens," she said.

But this is not the case, the minister added. A significant number of new citizens and PRs are children who are not part of the workforce, while others are married to citizens. One in three marriages now is between a citizen and non-citizen, she noted.

"Is Mr Leong suggesting that these new citizens are any less of a citizen? Is Mr Leong suggesting therefore that we should discount them, not include them?" Mrs Teo asked.

She suggested that Singaporeans should instead look at the bigger picture of the increased proportion of locals in PMET jobs, and decide if this is an "amazing accomplishment" not easily achieved elsewhere.

She also asked Mr Leong if Singapore should start distinguishing between new citizens and "real" citizens, and, if so, how many years of citizenship would qualify a person as a "real" citizen.

Replying, Mr Leong said: "Whether it's the original Singaporeans or the new Singaporeans, we actually do not make that distinction."

He added that his issue was with the impact of each year's crop of new citizens and PRs on the existing population. If there are 50,000 new citizens and PRs each year, but the number of locals in PMET jobs increases by only 35,000, then there is an undeniable pressure on the PMET job market, he said. "So the situation is not as rosy as what you have painted."

Mrs Teo acknowledged his point of view, but reiterated her earlier points that many new citizens and PRs are either not in the workforce or married to Singaporeans.

"They have a family nexus. Are we to say: 'Please don't work. Please be out of the workforce,'" she asked. "I don't believe Mr Leong is saying that at all. However, this constant obsession - if I may put it that way - with drawing lines, I'm not sure is good for us as a society."

She urged MPs to consider these issues carefully and think about the values and attitudes that drive such questions.

"It is not that the question cannot be asked, but I think we have to search our hearts and ask ourselves, before asking these questions: What is our thinking? What is our attitude? And what is the value that we are expressing by even putting this question forward?"

When Mr Leong rose again, Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin pointedly asked him if he was going to answer the minister's questions. "It's fine if you don't want to answer the question posed to you," Mr Tan added.

Mr Leong moved on to ask about another issue.

Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) then asked if the Government believes that slowing down the growth of EP and S Pass holders is sufficient to prevent local PMETs from getting displaced.

He added that it is misleading to compare both numbers, given that the overall base numbers in both groups are different. This means the slowdown in the growth rate of EP and S Pass holders is "less dramatic" than what Mrs Teo said.

Many PMET positions may have already been filled by foreigners, Associate Professor Lim added, making it no surprise that the required number of EP and S Pass holders has gone down.

Mrs Teo replied: "I merely stated the facts, I did not say that one contributed to the other. I stated the facts; this is what they were."

As for Prof Lim's question on whether Singapore is satisfied with how much it has slowed the growth rate of EP and S Pass holders, Mrs Teo said her ministry has four aims.

These are to keep employment high and unemployment low, as well as help Singaporeans achieve income growth and retirement adequacy. If this can be done without using foreigners as a complement to the workforce, and reducing the reliance on manpower-intensive methods of work in certain sectors, the answer is yes, she said.

But Singapore, as a small city-state, has constraints. Still, it needs to find the best solutions, she added.

She asked the House to imagine a scenario where the number of EP and S Pass holders has shrunk significantly, and likewise, the job opportunities for Singaporeans. "Is that going to be better for us? Well, we'll have to think very hard about whether the answer is yes."

More Singaporeans taking on senior roles in finance, filling new jobs created: Ong Ye Kung
Singaporeans in senior roles in financial services grew more than 50% from 2014 to 2019
Addressing concerns, he says foreigners play key role in sector and bring benefits to Singapore
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 2 Sep 2020

More Singaporeans are holding senior roles in the financial sector and there is no sign they are at risk of losing out, said Transport Minister and Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member Ong Ye Kung.

And despite concerns over the numbers, foreigners play an important role in the sector and bring benefits to Singapore because it is not a "zero-sum game", he added.

Speaking in Parliament on the second day of the debate on the President's Address yesterday, Mr Ong addressed concerns about the share of foreign manpower in the financial services sector and drilled down into the details of the issue.

For instance, the number of Singaporeans holding senior jobs in the financial sector rose by more than 50 per cent from 2014 to last year.

In 2014, there were 1,700 Singaporeans holding such top-level positions - managing director and above. The number grew to 2,600 last year, said Mr Ong.

"That is more than a 50 per cent increase in five years, or an additional 900 Singaporeans taking up senior roles, embarking on a new and fulfilling stage in their careers," he said.

According to MAS estimates, said Mr Ong, the total number of senior positions in the financial services sector grew from 3,900 in 2014 to 5,900 last year.

While the proportion of Singaporeans in these roles has held steady - at about 44 per cent - their absolute numbers have increased. "This is because we have grown as a financial centre, the base has expanded significantly. So, same share but of a growing base," he said.

Last year, Singaporeans accounted for about 70 per cent of senior management roles in retail banks' local functions. In non-retail banks, where there is a higher concentration of regional and global functions, the proportion is lower, at about 40 per cent, he said.

"But this does not mean that Singaporeans are getting the short end of the stick because this is not a zero-sum game," Mr Ong added.

When banks bring their functions over here, Singaporeans also gain precious global and regional expertise, which "complements overseas assignments and exposure, which are key to preparing Singaporeans to assume senior management roles in global firms".

As for unfair hiring practices in the sector, Mr Ong made clear there is no place for that here.

"MAS holds our financial institutions to high standards and will not condone firms that fall short of fair hiring practices," he said.

Another concern, Mr Ong said, was the high concentration of one nationality in the technology departments of financial institutions.

MAS has stepped up engagement with the top leadership of key financial institutions on the need to maintain "robust HR practices that are merit-based and support workplace diversity", he added.

The financial services sector - which Mr Ong said was "a very bright spot in a Covid-19-stricken economy" - employs about 171,000 workers and forms 13 per cent of Singapore's economy.

MAS estimates show that about 70 per cent of the workforce are Singaporeans, 14 per cent are permanent residents, and 16 per cent work pass holders.

For senior roles, Singaporeans form 44 per cent, permanent residents 20 per cent, and work pass holders 36 per cent, said Mr Ong. These proportions have remained stable in recent years.

Acknowledging concerns over whether 44 per cent might be too low, he said the higher share of foreigners in senior roles is mainly due to the large international component of the activities that are now in Singapore's financial centre.

"This is an enviable position. And if you ask Singaporeans if this is a good thing for our country, I think most would say yes," Mr Ong added.

Still, there is more that can be done to create opportunities for Singaporeans, he said. MAS is working with the industry to groom Singaporeans to be leaders and specialists in financial services through various schemes.

In his speech, Mr Ong traced Singapore's journey in becoming a global financial hub, from bringing in new activities to developing new capabilities and, where necessary, injecting into the sector foreign expertise - people with track records in the area.

But over time, when Singaporeans gain the expertise, they can take on more roles in multinational teams, in Singapore as well as abroad. The same approach is now being used in developing fintech and green finance, he said.

As a result, the sector continues to create new jobs, said Mr Ong. In fact, about 22,000 financial sector jobs were created over the past five years, with 15,000 going to Singaporeans.

Mr Ong said Singapore is now emerging as one of the nerve centres in the global financial system - sharing a stage with cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong - but it is a position that cannot be taken for granted.

He said: "So, this is not about growth at all costs, or accepting 'trade-offs' for the sake of growth, but about whether as a people, we can strengthen our place in the financial world, hold our own, develop the expertise, seize the opportunities to make Singaporean lives better."


Singapore must avoid going down path of polarised politics: PM Lee Hsien Loong
Government and opposition must work for good of country, not just partisan interests
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore's success over the years, from building up its economy to tackling the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, has been possible because the country managed to get its politics right, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

And it is up to Singaporeans to ensure it remains so, by being engaged on the issues, sending the right signals through their votes and rewarding parties that delivered for the people.

The ruling People's Action Party, which helped build the country with the people, has a special duty to keep the system working, providing the leadership the country needs and deserves.

"At the most fundamental level, to make our politics work, both the Government and the opposition must share an overriding objective - to work for Singapore, and not just for our party or our supporters," he added yesterday, when he rose to join the debate on the President's Address to the opening of Parliament.

That would make it possible to have policy debates based on principles and fact, guided by shared ideals and goals, including protecting Singapore's security, growing its economy and securing its future.

"If we do that, then there's a basis for us to manage the inherent tensions in our system, and for politics to work out productively," he said, but cautioned that it was not a given that the virtuous circle would continue.

Elsewhere, politics has become increasingly toxic and bitter, issues are politicised and governments paralysed by partisan bickering, leaving countries divided and on a spiral downwards.

"If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation, it will be the end of us. We must not go down this path."

While there is no guarantee that even under a PAP government, Singapore will forever be successful, PM Lee called on Singaporeans to work with and keep faith with the Government, a formula that has served the country well.

In a wide-ranging 90-minute speech broadcast live, he also spoke on Singapore's ongoing battle against Covid-19 and noted that the nation has managed, after eight gruelling months, to stabilise the situation, with one of the world's lowest fatality rates. This had called for a tremendous effort, with Singaporeans working together and giving the Government their trust and support, he said.

The same compact will be crucial as the country navigates a changed world that requires stronger safety nets, the thorny issue of foreign worker policy, and evolving politics given the greater desire for opposition voices in Parliament, he said.

There was a need for more robust safety nets going forward, he said, citing greater economic uncertainty and the long-term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs.

The Government is not ideologically opposed to any solutions raised, he added. But it is imperative these safety nets are fiscally sustainable and do not create new problems in themselves, like eroding the spirit of self-reliance.

Singapore is also reviewing its foreign worker criteria, given the slack in the job market due to the downturn. Yet it must be careful not to give the wrong impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners, as its success is predicated on being an international hub that serves a global market, he said.

Taking up the hot button issue of foreigners competing with Singaporeans for jobs, which had dominated the first two days of the debate, he said: "The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it does not benefit Singaporeans?"

He added: "We may be under stress now, but we cannot turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold their own in the world."

A spirited exchange with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh followed PM Lee's speech, in which he said he had listened carefully to Mr Singh spelling out on Monday how he planned to go about his new role. "I applaud his tone and approach. The government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate," PM Lee said.

He added that it was good to have an adequate number of opposition MPs in the House, to keep the Government on its toes. But he warned that the opposition's tactic of urging voters to back it, assuming the PAP would still be around to form the government, was flawed.

"At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government?" he asked.

Responding, Mr Singh said he and his colleagues were sincere in standing for election to ensure an opposition presence, not because he was "desperate for power" or had dreams of forming a government. Likewise, in posing questions such as on the use of the nation's reserves, they were seeking good outcomes for Singapore and not out of a desire of "raiding them", he said.

PM Lee concluded his speech on a rousing note. Covid-19, like so many other challenges that Singapore has faced, would be a "platform for ambition and daring", he said, pledging that the nation would emerge stronger and more united from the crisis, as it had done in the past.

"We are here by dint of will and imagination, in defiance of all the odds. And of all those who said we wouldn't make it, we did.

"Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew," he said.

Choking up as he concluded, PM Lee said: "Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, evermore just and equal society."

Singapore has done well in fighting Covid-19, though Govt would have done some things differently with hindsight: PM Lee
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore has done well in handling the coronavirus pandemic so far in terms of health outcomes, though its response was not without shortcomings, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Joining the debate on the President's Address in Parliament yesterday, he noted that the country's fatality rate is one of the lowest in the world, with new infections in the community down to just a handful a day and fewer than 100 patients remaining in hospitals.

With hindsight, the Government would have done some things differently, he said.

Had it known earlier that Covid-19 patients were asymptomatic, it would have quarantined all Singaporeans who returned home from abroad in March, instead of only those returning from certain countries.

He added that they would have also been tested before being released from quarantine, even if they did not show any symptoms, instead of assuming that no symptoms meant no infection.

The Government would have also recommended the wearing of face masks sooner, said PM Lee, noting that it took the best available scientific advice at the time and changed its policy once the World Health Organisation recognised that asymptomatic transmission was a major problem.

PM Lee also said the authorities would have acted more quickly and aggressively to control the rapid spread of the disease in migrant worker dormitories.

The Government knew that communal living in dorms posed an infection risk and stepped up precautions, which seemed adequate, until the bigger clusters broke out and threatened to overwhelm it, he said.

"All this is wisdom after the fact. We must learn from these errors, and do better the next time," he said. "In the fog of war, it is not possible always to make the perfect decisions. Yet we have to decide and move. We cannot afford to wait."

Due to the scale and complexity of Singapore's response to Covid-19, there have inevitably been some "rough edges", said PM Lee.

He cited the foreign worker dormitory situation, and how work is being done to help workers get back to their jobs now that dorms have been cleared of the disease.

This has to be done safely because of the risk of re-emerging cases, he said, acknowledging this was a complicated exercise that has made things difficult for employers, especially contractors, who have to deal with new rules even as they try to revive their businesses.

"But I hope they understand that we are doing our best to smooth things out, and are doing all this in order to keep our people safe."

And while many countries talked about letting the disease spread to develop herd immunity early on, PM Lee said Singapore avoided doing so, as it would cause many here to get ill and die, especially the old and vulnerable.

The Prime Minister added: "We were determined, right from the very beginning, not to go down that route. We did our utmost to contain the outbreak and keep Singaporeans safe. And this meant mobilising all our national resources."

Through the building up of contact tracing and testing capabilities, Singapore is now able to do 20,000 laboratory tests daily, noted PM Lee, adding that the country can test several times that number of people due to pooled testing.

Singapore expanded its healthcare system to treat a high number of cases - doubling its intensive care unit capacity and setting up temporary community care and isolation facilities. This, said PM Lee, allowed it to create more beds than in all its acute hospitals put together, all within a few weeks.

Yesterday, he also held up the work done by the Singapore Armed Forces and the Home Team in handling the situation in the migrant worker dorms.

And touching on the circuit breaker period Singapore went through from early April to June, he said that the Government had timed it right to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

"Each of these operations was huge, and all of them had to be done in parallel. Thanks to the heroic efforts of many unsung heroes, working quietly behind the scenes, we got here today," he said.

Singapore could not have mounted its Covid-19 response without the public service, PM Lee said, which worked tirelessly to build new capabilities and stepped up outside of its scope of work.

The political leadership played a key role, and he noted that without the Cabinet, the public service alone could not have done its job.

The ministers defined priorities, made major decisions and directed civil servants in implementing Covid-19 response measures. They also worked to win public support and took responsibility for these efforts, said PM Lee.

Businesses pitched in by putting their people to work on solutions to bolster the nationwide Covid-19 fight by taking steps like setting up mask production lines, scouring the world for test equipment and constructing care facilities.

But critical to the success of Singapore's pandemic response was the cooperation of its citizens. Despite how severely affected their lives were, they complied with the measures, said PM Lee.

Singaporeans understood the need for tough and painful measures, he noted, and they took these on calmly and stoically, as they had confidence that the Government would see them through the crisis and beyond.

"I am very grateful for their cooperation and support. Their support will remain crucial as we continue the fight to keep Singaporeans safe," he said.

Murali Pillai calls for IT system to track attendance and questions of MPs in the House
Holding MPs to account as part of mature democracy
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) has proposed that Parliament invest in a new IT system that tracks the number of parliamentary questions raised by an MP as well as the attendance record for sittings.

Such information would make it easier for people to hold MPs to account, he said yesterday during the debate on the President's Address.

This information is already public and can be obtained today, but not without some effort, including manual counting, he said.

Said Mr Murali: "I urge such records to be available more easily with an online search platform."

The proposal is among several he made to improve parliamentary processes, as part of his call for increased consensus among MPs for a more stable and mature democracy.

Another of his ideas is to establish a parliamentary record of the outcome of MPs' proposals that ministers had agreed to study.

He said: "The Hansard is replete with examples of frontbenchers providing holding replies without the ability to check if there are any updates. Members of the public reading the Hansard will not be able to tell if the loop has been closed."

The Hansard is a written record of all parliamentary proceedings.

Mr Murali said: "We should also entrench a practice of expressly acknowledging MPs in Parliament, should their proposals be accepted by the Government. This, too, should be accessible by members of public."

Another suggestion he made is for Parliament to provide the option of taking an MP's speech as read and to be made public.

This, he added, would boost the efficiency of the process, so that time in the House is spent on genuine debate and points of clarification or disagreement.

This would also avoid repetition of points, which is time-wasting.

Mr Murali said: "The minister should feel free to berate members who try to debate without having read the speech." The debate during the second reading of proposed legislations is now comprised largely of MPs reading out their speeches when their turn comes, with little time to react to what was said by others, he added.

Mr Murali also called for the civil service to publish and present a paper in Parliament regularly, with details such as the number of letters the civil service and statutory boards receive from MPs petitioning on behalf of their constituents.

The paper should indicate if the substantive response to the MP was within the time period stipulated in the Government Instruction Manual, which specifies policies, standards, regulations and codes of practice.

Said Mr Murali: "Voters are maturing, more demanding, and very rightly so, in terms of what they can and should expect from all of us in this House. They are also discerning, attentive, rational and fair. They hold all of us up to high standards and see beyond political colours to the real impact we make in their lives."

His proposals, Mr Murali said, will help ensure constituents have access to information, to make informed political choices and decisions.

"Through this process, it would then be easier to assess the full diversity of views expressed by all MPs, ascertain, as a matter of record, where the consensus lies and the points of disagreement, if any.

"This will also hold MPs to account, and for our constituents to see if we do indeed put in our time and attention to parliamentary matters, or whether we are simply going through the motions."

Do not leave vulnerable groups behind as economy transforms amid Covid-19, say MPs
Call for employers, policies to be more inclusive
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2020

Singapore's economic transformation amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn must not come at the expense of its people, especially the more vulnerable in the community, said several MPs in Parliament yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on the President's Address, the MPs said people - such as those with physical or mental disabilities, seniors, low-income families and displaced workers - should not be left behind as the Republic progresses.

Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said businesses must do their part to provide fair opportunities for workers.

Citing the case of a resident who lost a foot to diabetes and is now immobile, Mr Sharael said new norms of work amid the current crisis mean that this resident, being alert and mentally capable, is as productive as an able-bodied person.

Yet, the resident has found it difficult to land a job, Mr Sharael said, calling for employers to be more inclusive when it comes to jobs for seniors, the less abled and caregivers.

The Government, businesses and citizens must also work together and expand opportunities for Singapore's senior workforce, he added.

Similarly, Mr Alvin Tan, Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Culture, Community and Youth, focused on the need to do more and foster an inclusive society for those with mental and physical disabilities.

In his speech, Mr Tan cited how a resident refused to call the Ministry of Social and Family Development helpline because she felt it was shameful to do so.

He said there is a need for inclusive policies and norms to ensure that people feel safe and unashamed to use mental health resources.

Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) said groups such as vulnerable seniors, families with little financial support and people with special needs are particularly affected in being able to cope with the pressures and stress brought about by challenges from the external environment.

She asked: "While state resources have always largely been channelled to assist the vulnerable and the low-income groups, have we considered what other safety nets they require or what may make them feel more comforted in knowing they are not left behind as Singapore progresses?"

Singaporeans also need more than financial aid as they rebuild their lives post-Covid-19, Ms Chan said, adding that emotional support and ground-up initiatives are the "non-official but necessary additional safety nets that will truly make a difference to people's lives".

Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa, in her speech, called for an enhancement to the Covid-19 Support Grant, such that it can offer financial assistance for a longer period to those affected by the pandemic.

"Otherwise, there will be much anxiety and pain in many families, which will, in turn, slow down our recovery," she said.

The grant provides up to $800 a month for three months to Singaporeans who are unemployed or have suffered significant income loss due to the pandemic.

Ms Poa also suggested allowing Central Provident Fund members who have lost their jobs to borrow from their own CPF accounts, to cope with the financial stress amid the Covid-19 crisis. These loans can be repaid after they find new employment, she said.

Don't assume you have 'a monopoly over compassion', says SM Tharman in debate with WP's Jamus Lim
House sees spirited debate on issue of minimum wage
WP's Jamus Lim concedes policy cannot be implemented now, given the pandemic fallout
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2020

Much progress has been made on improving the lot of the lowest-paid workers as their earnings were built up sector by sector, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

Singapore's efforts to do so involve the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which he called a "minimum wage plus", Workfare subsidies and many other means, Mr Tharman added.

"And it's not a job that's done for good. We have to do more."

Raising the standard of living of the poor is a complicated matter, he noted, with one issue being how to achieve this goal without losing the wage earner's ability to have the pride of a job and earn a salary.

"I say this, by the way, as an economist, as someone who studies overseas experience very carefully, and who - together with my colleagues - is a practitioner," he added.

Rising to join the spirited debate in the House that lasted nearly an hour on how to tackle income and social inequalities, he said no one should assume that he has a monopoly over compassion.

Noting that he had been taken by the passionate speeches from many of his party colleagues on the subject, he said: "I would like to suggest that none of us have a monopoly over compassion, and I say this not to discredit anyone."

The debate was sparked by a speech by Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), who argued for a minimum wage in his maiden speech in Parliament.

He said there was insufficient compassion in Singapore's policymaking, and that efficiency was prioritised at the expense of equity.

"I humbly suggest that the root of these challenges is insufficient compassion in our policymaking process," he said.

This prompted several People's Action Party MPs to question Associate Professor Lim on whether imposing a minimum wage in the middle of a recession would hit workers hard.

They also wanted to know what wage level he would set as a minimum and his plans to improve youth unemployment.

Responding to the flurry of questions, Prof Lim conceded that now was not the right time to implement a minimum wage, given the economic fallout from the pandemic, but suggested it could be studied now and rolled out when the situation improved.

He also said he did not have a specific minimum wage in mind and this should be determined by an independent panel.

As for youth unemployment, he did not have a proposal, he said, as he "had not thought about it".

Joining the debate later, Mr Tharman said he "would not exaggerate" the differences between the minimum wage model advocated by Prof Lim and the PWM practised by the Government.

The Government does believe it is important to raise the wages of its lowest-paid workers, he said.

"We really believe this. We've achieved significant progress in the last 10 years and in the last five years, and we think we should go further."

He described PWM as "minimum wage plus" with a sectoral approach. It also had the benefit of allowing policymakers to set the minimum rung at an acceptable level for each sector, he said.

"If you have a single level, you'll have to decide where to pitch it," Mr Tharman said.

Responding, Prof Lim said he regretted if it came across that he was suggesting he, his party or any individual has a monopoly over compassion. He just wanted equity to be favoured over efficiency.

The House also saw exchanges between WP MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and several PAP office-holders on the topic of race.

Ms Lim asked yesterday if the Government would consider the possibility of bringing the various race-based self-help groups under a single national umbrella.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman, whose speech Ms Lim was responding to, replied that although the various self-help groups do work together, having distinct groups ensures that each community has the space to understand its own issues and challenges, and work at its own pace.

WP's Jamus Lim quizzed by PAP MPs on minimum wage and 'compassionate policymaking'
They seek details on minimum wage he proposes, how and when to implement
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2020

Parliament revisited the issue of how best to help raise the wages of low-income workers, with several People's Action Party (PAP) MPs pressing Workers' Party (WP) MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) for details on his call for a minimum wage here.

During the debate on the President's Address, Associate Professor Lim argued, among other things, that many problems faced by segments of the population, such as low-wage workers, the elderly and single mothers, could be attributed to "insufficient compassion in our policymaking process".

While he acknowledged that Singapore has a form of minimum wage in the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), he noted it was not universal and suggested Singapore could implement "a simple, across-the-board minimum wage".

The employment impact of such a minimum wage would "likely be very limited", he added.

Following the quizzing by other MPs, Prof Lim agreed that it was not the right time to implement a minimum wage, given the ongoing fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He also said he did not have specific policies or figures in mind when making his proposals, adding that he was simply offering suggestions for further consideration and study.


Ms Gan Siow Huang (Marymount), who is Minister of State for Manpower and Education, said she agreed with Prof Lim that policymakers must exercise and demonstrate compassion in policymaking.

"In fact, I think that is what the Government has been trying to do in many of the policies and, as a result, sometimes our policies become very complicated, because we understand that there's no one-size-fits-all policy that treats all problems."

She took issue with Prof Lim's suggestion that a minimum wage would have little impact on unemployment.

She said: "I beg to differ. I think under current times, when businesses are being challenged and we're in a period of recession, there is a very real risk that if we were to introduce a universal minimum wage across all sectors, I think many of our lower-wage workers may lose their jobs. From low wage, they become no wage. There are unintended consequences of some policies with good intent."

Prof Lim agreed that implementing a minimum wage would not be ideal in an economic crisis, but he suggested that the policy could be rolled out "after the storm has passed".

Other PAP MPs who questioned him included Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC), Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson), Dr Janil Puthucheary (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir).

Mr Zaqy, who is Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence, said the key difference between the PWM and a universal minimum wage is that the PWM is differentiated across sectors.

He pointed out that he had previously announced in Parliament of plans to expand the PWM without turning it into a "blunt tool" that applies across all sectors.

"There are different considerations and things that need to be worked out across sectors, but it's not a new position. It is something that we've been working on since 2012," he added.

Prof Lim replied that the differentiation in wages under the PWM could result in a "substitution" between workers from different sectors with different minimum wages. He said a universal minimum wage would prevent employers from "gaming the system".

Fellow WP MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) later stood up to ask Mr Zaqy how the Government would respond to individuals earning less than the $1,300 average household expenditure on basic needs and who do not fall under the PWM.

"Should this group wait until the PWM comes to them? How long will that take?" he asked.


Mr Nair asked Prof Lim what level of minimum wage would be appropriate for Singapore and whether he is aware of any country with a minimum wage that also has a lower unemployment rate than Singapore.

Prof Lim replied that he did not know what level of wage would be appropriate and suggested an independent panel be formed to study this. He reiterated his claim that minimum wage would have a limited impact on unemployment and added that this was based on "reams and reams of studies".

Mr Perera also addressed Mr Nair's second question, saying that the fact that another country has a higher or lower unemployment rate than Singapore may not be causally related to its minimum wage policy.

Ms Tin asked if Prof Lim was suggesting a minimum wage should be implemented but withdrawn whenever a crisis hits. She also asked what wage was paid to cleaners in Sengkang Town Council.

Prof Lim replied that a minimum wage is meant to provide a social safety net and it would be wrong to "pull the rug out from under those workers" in a time of crisis.

He said the Sengkang team is still in the process of taking over the town council and has not made decisions on a minimum wage for its cleaners.

Ms Tin had also asked if Prof Lim had specific proposals to improve youth employment in Singapore, even though this was not a topic he mentioned in his speech.

As Prof Lim was explaining the "cyclical" nature of youth employment, in which young people tend to delay their entry into the workforce by pursuing further education, Dr Puthucheary cut him off.

"Mr Jamus Lim was asked a question. While I appreciate his erudition in economics and I'm learning quite a lot from him, he hasn't answered Ms Tin's question," he said.

"Ms Tin asked if you had a proposal for youth employment, not the principles on which you say employment changes or doesn't change."

Prof Lim responded: "We do not want to roll out... specific proposals to address youth unemployment in a time when we are in a recession because we're not sure if the unemployment is justified or not. That's my reason for stating that context."

He added that he did not have a specific policy in mind as he had not considered the matter in detail.


Mr Sitoh took issue with Prof Lim's comparison of the Government's use of the reserves for investment in areas like education amid an economic downturn to a household's decision to remortgage its home while interest rates are low.

Prof Lim had said: "If I may argue, what we want is to make the best use of financial resources and not cling to some rigid ideology that we should never touch (the reserves).

"We are stewards, and as stewards, we are responsible not just for ensuring that the pot will grow over time. We're also responsible for taking the right financial decisions, which in certain times may involve spending for higher investment things (like) education.

"These are things that we can actually extract a higher return for in the future. We will be able to get higher tax revenue that will more than pay for the expenses that we incur today."

Mr Sitoh, an accountant, said he was "perturbed" by this argument.

"If I heard you correctly, you said given the low interest rate, it is now time to remortgage your properties. As an accountant with over three decades of experience, I can tell you that is how people start getting into trouble. I hope you're not teaching that in your classes."

He added that Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that has not had to borrow during the pandemic and that having savings "is not a sin".

Prof Lim replied that he used the mortgage analogy to show that there are instances where borrowing against low interest rates to invest in something that gives higher returns "is not just financially prudent, it is in fact going to be better for your balance sheet in the long run".

To this, Mr Sitoh said: "You are always assuming that tomorrow will be better than today... You are assuming there is a better return, which may never come."

Prof Lim replied that it was possible for a Government to over-save. He also said he was not assuming that there would be better returns in the future.

"I'm saying if there are projects that give you better returns today, you should engage in those, substitute out the lower returns that are already locked in, by your ability to borrow at low interest rates... It is recognising that there are higher-return projects today, unless you're saying that the youth of today in Singapore are not worth investing in."

This drew a chiding from Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, who said: "I don't think that was the point that was made."


Mr Tharman also rose to join the debate even though, he said, he "wasn't intending to speak".

Responding to Prof Lim's view that Singapore should "no longer privilege efficiency at the sheer expense of equity", he advised against making straw man arguments like saying the Government is interested only in efficiency, not equity.

"That's frankly laughable," said Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Social Policies. "Try to avoid that manner of argument, of painting everything in binary terms."

He also responded to Prof Lim's citation of a study on low-wage work, which he attributed to the National University of Singapore. He said: "I've never heard economists cite a university as a source of research, be it a well-regarded or not very well-regarded university. Individuals do research and it may be very credible research, but universities don't publish research."

Prof Lim said he did not think he was making a straw man argument when talking about a trade-off between efficiency and equity.

"I'm not suggesting that every policy that is currently in place is only geared towards efficiency, and likewise, I'm not suggesting that every policy that I have laid out in my speech and elsewhere is only geared towards equity," he said.

"Rather, it is about a continuum, and I am arguing that we can move more in the direction of favouring equity over efficiency."


GAN SIOW HUANG: Under current times, where businesses are being challenged and we are in a period of recession, there is a very real risk that if we were to introduce minimum wage, a universal minimum wage across all sectors, many of our lower wage workers may lose their jobs. And from 'low wage', they become 'no wage'.

JAMUS LIM: There is no doubt that at this very moment, such a policy may not be ideal. But let us come together and agree that this is a principle that we want to roll out so that when we set these plans in place after the storm has passed, we can easily bring them to pass.

VIKRAM NAIR: What is the level of minimum wage that the member proposes?

JAMUS LIM: What is the appropriate level of the minimum wage? I should be clear. I do not know. And that is exactly why what we need is a national commission to understand this and to study this.

JANIL PUTHUCHEARY: While I appreciate his erudition in economics and I am learning quite a lot from him, he hasn't answered Ms Tin Pei Ling's question. Ms Tin asked if you had a proposal for youth employment, not the principles on which you say employment changes or doesn't change.

JAMUS LIM: Fair enough, yes, but why that context is important is because we do not want to roll out specific proposals to address youth unemployment in a time when we are in a recession because we are not sure if the unemployment is justified or not... I do not have a specific policy in mind because I have not thought about it.

A spirited debate on minimum wage, but where are the details?
Without numbers and policy proposals, discussion threw up more heat than light
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2020

Amid the sharpening public discourse on social inequality, partly due to hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Associate Professor Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) brought up the idea of a minimum wage yesterday.

He set it in the context of the need for more compassionate policymaking.

He also said that something "students of policy" learn very early on is that policy involves a trade-off between efficiency and equity, and policymakers here have for too long leaned too far towards efficiency.

"The root of these challenges is insufficient compassion in our policymaking process," he said.

"When we prioritise compassion, we become more willing to err on the side of equity, perhaps at some expense to efficiency."

The speech went on to broadly highlight the plight of Singaporeans, and the need to translate empathy into action.

"All we need is the courage of our convictions," he said in earnest.

This was followed by a flurry of clarifications and questions from the ruling party, and increasingly evasive responses from Prof Lim.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad countered that the issue is not new - the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) goes back almost 10 years, and has been thought through and debated in the House.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) cut to the chase and asked for two pieces of information: the appropriate level of minimum wage, and examples of countries with minimum wage that have a lower unemployment rate than Singapore.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) asked if - by acknowledging that minimum wage might not be suitable in a poor economic climate - he intended to implement it after the crisis, withdraw it during the next crisis and so on, and whether such cycling in its implementation would be efficient.

She also asked for specifics on the minimum wage he would set for his town council cleaners.

Prof Lim responded that one has to be careful about implementing this in a single town council, as there would be "general equilibrium effects".

The substitution of labour would take place, he said, and low-wage jobs would migrate out of the country.

At this point, Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary intervened on a point of order.

He said, drily: "Mr Speaker, Mr Jamus Lim was asked a question. While I appreciate his erudition in economics, and I'm learning quite a lot from him, he hasn't answered Ms Tin's question."

Ms Tin had asked if he had a proposal for youth employment.

Prof Lim then replied that context is important. "We do not want to roll out specific proposals to address youth unemployment at a time when we are in a recession, because we are not sure if the unemployment is justified or not.

"I do not have a specific policy in mind because I have not thought about it."

By the time Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) waded into the debate, the tension - and one might even say frustration - in the air was palpable.

Citing record low global interest rates, Prof Lim had argued, using the analogy of remortgaging a house, that governments should invest in things that would give them higher returns.

Mr Sitoh, an accountant, said he was "perturbed" by this argument. "If I heard you correctly, you said given the low interest rate, it is now time to remortgage your properties.

"As an accountant with over three decades of experience, I can tell you that is how people start getting into trouble."

It took Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's intervention to bring the nearly hour-long exchange to a close.

He had three points to make.

First, the Government genuinely believes that it is important to raise the wages of the lowest-paid workers. It also believes it can go further. The PWM is a minimum wage-plus model and takes a sectoral approach, which "allows you to set the minimum rung at a level that is not so low and not so high".

He ceded that how to do this without people gaming the system is an issue that policymakers grapple with.

Second, no one has a monopoly over compassion.

"I've listened to speeches over the last few days amongst everyone. I must say some of my PAP colleagues really made an impression on me, not just for the very forceful proposals they were making, often going beyond what the Government is doing, but the emotional force of their conviction," he said.

"So please don't assume. None of us should assume that we have a monopoly over compassion."

Third, one should avoid straw man arguments such as saying that the Government is interested only in efficiency and not equity - something which is "frankly laughable", he said.

"Try to avoid that manner of argument or painting everything in binary terms.

"Raising the standard of living of the poor is a complicated matter, and I say this by the way as an economist.

"How do we do it without losing the wage earner's ability to have the pride of having a job and earning a wage? We do it through the PWM, which has to be expanded.

"We do it through Workfare. We do it through a range of other subsidies."

The Senior Minister's remarks were short and dignified.

One does not expect perfection from members of the House.

There will invariably be speeches that are long on rhetoric and short on specifics.

But by any measure, what was surprising about Prof Lim's speech yesterday was his decision to mention a minimum wage without a few numbers at his fingertips, given that it was a key plank of the opposition's campaign platform during the general election.

The Workers' Party, for instance, proposed a national minimum take-home wage of $1,300 a month for full-time work, the amount an average four-person household in Singapore needs to spend on basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter each month.

The party also proposed a redundancy insurance scheme for workers, under which they pay $4 a month, matched by employers, into an Employment Security Fund which pays out 40 per cent of their last-drawn salary for up to six months if they are retrenched.

Going further back, members of the House who had proposed other forms of income support - such as former Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who co-wrote a policy paper on a temporary universal basic income scheme - came to the House armed with information.

If there was one takeaway from the wage debate yesterday, it is this: that MPs, and perhaps it applies more to newer ones, must come prepared with details and be ready to defend their positions robustly when challenged, lest the issues under scrutiny generate more heat than light.

In tackling inequality, Singapore has to reach consensus on social compact it wants, says Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman
Maliki sets out areas Govt intends to focus on to help narrow social stratification
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2020

As Singapore works to reduce inequality, conversations about the kind of social compact its citizens want and how to fund that support have to continue, Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman said yesterday.

"There needs to be societal consensus on what is a basic and reasonable standard of living we commit to provide to all Singaporeans, bearing in mind that increases in support and benefits provided are not free, but ultimately paid for by everyone through taxes," he added.

Joining the debate on the President's Address, Dr Maliki noted that while Singapore has moved to narrow inequality, bridging the gap will become more difficult with time as globalisation and digitalisation threaten to leave behind those who cannot cope in the new economy.

The minister, formerly an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore's social work and psychology department, assured the House that the Government pays very close attention to narrowing social stratification, as he sets out areas it intends to focus on to tackle it.

Singaporeans, regardless of their income or background, must be able to meet their basic needs and achieve a reasonable standard of living, he said.

This includes giving children a good education and preparing them for adulthood, giving young people the assurance they can advance in the job market, and allowing adults to have job security and prepare well for retirement.

Investing in education is thus important, and the Government has set aside more resources for low-income families, he said, citing subsidies they can receive for childcare and school fees, as well as enhanced bursaries.

He added that public healthcare and home ownership are heavily subsidised, allowing all to meet their fundamental needs.

But there has to be social mobility for all to reduce inequality in a sustainable way, said Dr Maliki, who is also Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

To achieve it, the country has to put in place a system wherein everyone is progressing, he added.

Singapore has to continue building a strong economy that can give its citizens good jobs, reasonable wages and sustained pay rises with improvements in workers' productivity and skills, he said.

It needs to also provide greater equality of opportunity, he added, by levelling uneven starting blocks for children and offering opportunities at every stage of life.

The Education Ministry has made significant moves to address this by taking into account the skills and abilities of individual students and going beyond grades and paper qualifications, he added.

For instance, it changed the PSLE scoring system and moved beyond streaming to full subject-based banding in schools, he pointed out.

He also pledged that disadvantaged families will not be left behind, as the ministry improves access to quality and affordable pre-school education to give all children a strong foundation to temper inequalities they may face.

"Our starting point in life should not dictate our ending point, and with hard work, ability and ambition, we can succeed."

Singaporeans also need to work towards a society where success is not defined solely in economic terms, and it has to avoid allowing material divides to translate into social divides, said Dr Maliki.

He recounted a conversation he had with some youth in his constituency that unsettled him.

One said she felt her schoolmates looked down on her when they found out she was receiving financial aid, while another said he felt a divide between himself and his university mates because he came from a less prestigious school.

To address this, Dr Maliki emphasised that Singapore needs a society of opportunity underpinned by humility, responsibility and a commitment to treat everyone as an equal regardless of his or her background.

Education is fundamental to nurturing such a society, and the Education Ministry will continue to instil these values, he said.

"We must remain committed to the fundamental aim of Singapore being a place where our efforts are rewarded not just in economic terms, but also in the quality of life we enjoy, and a society where everyone has a place that is valued equally," he said.

Maliki: Religious leaders helped forge Malay Muslims' progressive identity
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2020

Islamic religious leaders have helped Malay Muslims forge a progressive identity while being respectful to Singapore's local context, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman said yesterday.

He lauded their efforts in steering the community through sensitive issues, and said maintaining religious harmony requires the effort of everyone, including Malay Muslims. That is why the role of Malay-Muslim religious leaders is crucial, he said.

"The essence of leadership is the ability to make sound and well-considered decisions, even if they are unpopular and are difficult to be accepted by some segments, but should be done in the interest of the larger community and society," he added.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the President's Address, Dr Maliki, who is also Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, touched on how the Covid-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for Malay Muslims.

He spoke about how Islamic religious leaders have had to make tough decisions to help stop the virus' spread, such as suspending Friday prayers in mosques and deferring this year's haj pilgrimage. He said he was grateful that the religious leaders acted early.

He also urged the Malay-Muslim community to help its more vulnerable members level up, and pledged that the Government will continue doing the same.

To that end, one such effort is the Uplift programme by the Education and Social and Family Development ministries, he said. Under the programme, a coordinator works with disadvantaged students and their families to link them up with community programmes and resources, including social workers and social service agencies, he added.

The Government, Dr Maliki said, will continue to strengthen such partnerships across different agencies and the community so that it can continue to provide support for disadvantaged families.

He added that it is understandable some families are unable to tackle long-term issues like education, upskilling and financial planning as they usually live from pay cheque to pay cheque and would rather focus on more immediate concerns. He was concerned about such families, and called on the community to come together to improve the circumstances of these families.

He said: "If we rally together as a community, we can help relieve some of these pressures for fellow members of our community and citizens - to stabilise them and work together to chart a brighter future for their children."

Race-blind society: Premature to say Singapore has arrived, say ministers
Crucial to have respect for differences between groups while striving for more inclusiveness
By Yuen Sin and Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2020

The concept of a "race-blind society" that is free of racial prejudice and discrimination in attitudes and practices is an ideal that Singapore wants to work towards.

But it is premature to conclude that Singapore has arrived at such a post-racial state, two ministers - Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman - said yesterday.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had on Tuesday called for a national exercise to review how Singapore's journey towards becoming a race-blind society can be hastened.

The concept of a "race-blind society" is an aim set out in a report by the Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency in 2016, she noted.

Ms Lim had also called for an open review of various race-based policies, including the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) and race-based self-help groups.

While the self-help groups have done good work, with some extending help to other communities as well, their existence reinforces racial consciousness, she said.

The different sizes of the ethnic groups contributing to these organisations may also affect the amount of resources they have.

In their speeches on Day 4 of the debate on the President's Address, the ministers yesterday stressed that while it is important to work towards a more inclusive society, it is also important to maintain an awareness of and respect for differences between groups.

Mr Tong noted that while Singapore has now become less race conscious and more tolerant of differences, Singaporeans must not think that they have arrived at an ideal "post-racial state", or that no more effort will be needed to bridge different groups.

"Race and religion remain fault lines and are emotive issues.

"The risk of regressing on what we have achieved is always there, and we cannot assume that our progress will be in a straight line," he said.

Singaporeans should also take care not to ignore or underestimate the "severe and sometimes unintended negative consequences that can easily occur with unrestrained comments" on race relations and related issues, added Dr Maliki, who is also Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs.

Mr Tong said that there is "absolutely nothing natural or inevitable" about the progress that Singapore has achieved on issues of race and religion over the years, especially with the young perhaps coming closer to the ideal state of unity and harmony than their parents and grandparents.

"If it were an expected or natural progression, it would have occurred elsewhere in the world naturally, including among our neighbours in Asean," he said.

"We got here precisely because we have worked consistently and systematically at it, through policies that touch almost every aspect of our lives," he added, noting how Singaporeans of different races live together, study together and go through national service together as a result of such policies.

Common spaces like public parks, schools, libraries, sports facilities and public housing, where all races interact - whether accidentally or deliberately, through the EIP - promote a more open and shared outlook across communities by creating opportunities for social mixing, added Mr Tong.

Moreover, consciousness of race in Singapore cannot be erased, nor should it be, both ministers noted.

Neither does pledging to remain as "one united people, regardless of race" mean that Singapore should renounce cultural affinities or discourage people of the same community from coming together to support each other and others in the community, said Mr Tong.

To be inclusive, Singaporeans must accept that there are differences across races and approach these differences in a constructive manner, added Dr Maliki.

"These could be differences in cultural traditions and practices, emphasis on priorities and what matters more in life, but also the specific community problems or issues that members of a race group find that they have to grapple with, and require dedicated attention and assistance," he added.

Singaporeans, Dr Maliki said, should also allow for a "positive sense of racial identity to exist and develop", and have in place a comprehensive set of policies and community initiatives, including self-help groups.

This will help address issues in the community as part of a larger ecosystem that provides help to those who need it, and solve problems effectively and with empathy.

Mr Tong agreed with him that ethnic self-help groups still have a role to play.

While they are race-based, they are not race-bound, and have rallied their respective communities to serve the vulnerable across the spectrum of race and ethnicity.

The volunteers in such groups, too, cut across racial boundaries.

Almost a quarter of the volunteers in Malay self-help group Mendaki are not Malay, he pointed out.

Dr Maliki added that there is no inherent contradiction in an individual having a strong racial identity as well as a strong Singaporean one.

He said that is why having in place the CMIO - Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others - framework "does not make us less Singaporean, and doing away with it does not mean we will become more Singaporean".

How race issues are discussed publicly will evolve over time, both ministers added.

Singapore's youth must have as much a voice in this discourse on race as anyone else, added Mr Tong. Such discourse must also take place across generations, he said.

Mr Tong added that inclusiveness is "not about ignoring or just living with differences, or denying that different groups have different and even conflicting agendas".

"It is about accepting that there is always going to be some give and take, and appreciating that everyone is entitled to their positions as long as those positions do not encroach on another group's right to also have a position, albeit a different one, and perhaps even one that you might disagree with," he said.

Firms to get up to $30,000 for each new worker under Jobs Growth Incentive to hire more locals
Clear signal to firms to bring forward hiring plans and offer more jobs to Singaporeans
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

Firms that hire more locals in the coming months will get help in paying up to half of their wages, in a clear signal to companies to bring forward their hiring plans and create more jobs for Singaporeans.

At the same time, jobs will spring up and investments will flow Singapore's way if it stays open and competitive, the Government said as Parliament yesterday concluded a week-long debate on the President's Address that frequently returned to jobs and strengthening the Singaporean core amid a recession induced by Covid-19.

For new local hires over the next six months, companies could get up to $15,000 for each worker below the age of 40, and up to $30,000 for each older worker, under the new $1 billion Jobs Growth Incentive scheme.

The payouts will be made over 12 months from next March and will be automatically computed each month based on a company's Central Provident Fund contributions, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) said yesterday.

Essentially, the Government will co-pay one quarter of the first $5,000 of gross monthly wages for one year, with this doubled to 50 per cent for each new mature hire.

The scheme was first flagged by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat last month to boost hiring of locals in growth sectors, on top of wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme, which will cover wages paid up to March next year.

It is a step up in terms of level of salary support compared with the Enhanced Hiring Incentive announced earlier in May.

Wrapping up the debate in Parliament, National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said employers have an important role to play to build up their Singaporean core - particularly given the uncertain times - and must retrench Singaporeans only as a last resort.

But while MOM has said it is taking a closer scrutiny of firms whose Singaporean core has been weakening, the sustainable path forward for Singapore is to grow the economy by staying open to foreigners and investments, he said.

"I don't think we just want to settle with having the cake and eating it, but we want to grow and enlarge the cake, thereby giving Singapore and Singaporeans a bigger and better - and also the best - slice of it."

He stressed: "Strengthening our Singaporean core is not, and must not be, something which divides us."

The point was also driven home by Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung, who said the Singapore way has not been to turn inward, but to be open and hold its own against the competition.

"Don't make ourselves a small pond, live in the pond and feel we are great, we are a big fish in the pond, but open up to the lagoon, open up to the sea, have a much more exciting, diverse ecosystem, but invest in our own people, hold our own," said Mr Ong, who is also a Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member. "That is what we have been doing for decades."

Mr Ong said MAS will ensure fair hiring opportunities while grooming Singaporeans as leaders and specialists in the financial sector.

Joining the debate, Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran said Singapore can do better if it finds the right balance between openness and inclusivity by preserving a sense of fairness, whether in access to opportunities or the way the benefits of growth are distributed.

To be eligible for the Jobs Incentive Scheme, firms must increase the headcount of their local workforce between this month and February, compared with August. They must also raise the size of their local workforce earning at least $1,400 in gross monthly wages.

The scheme will apply only to firms that were set up on or before Aug 16, and firms must continue to meet the eligibility criteria for the 12-month period to receive the full amount of support.

Firms can visit the Iras website for more information.

Staying open key to creating tech jobs for Singaporeans: S. Iswaran

Tech giants here hire many locals but also need to tap diverse talent base: Iswaran
By Yip Wai Yee, Tech Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

Singapore has to remain open to different types of companies in the technology sector, and their need to tap a diverse talent base, including foreign workers, so as to ensure good jobs for citizens, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran told Parliament yesterday.

"Our challenge is to work with these companies to continue creating career opportunities for Singaporeans, while recognising that we must allow them to have the necessary diversity in their talent base, especially in emerging areas, in order to strengthen our position as a digital tech hub," he said.

Speaking on the fifth and final day of debate on the President's Address, and after a number of MPs had raised concerns about an under-representation of Singaporean workers in some sectors or functions, the minister said the digital economy remained a "bright spot" for Singaporean job seekers.

He noted the more than 18,000 jobs and skills opportunities in the sector under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, saying: "Our goal is to have as many skilled Singaporeans as possible to take up these roles, and that is why we are scaling up our efforts, both in pre-employment and continuing education."

The TechSkills Accelerator programme, which equips workers with digital skills, has placed about 6,600 Singaporeans in tech jobs so far. And the Infocomm Media Development Authority is looking to place and train an additional 5,500 Singaporeans in tech jobs over the next two to three years, he added.

But increasing opportunities for Singaporeans in the sector means also having to take into account its variegated landscape, where firms have diverse needs and therefore different staff profiles, he said.

Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have regional headquarters here, and hire many Singaporeans both here and abroad, he noted. But the nature of their business means they need a globally diverse talent pool, and the proportion of locals may not be as high as the national average.

Firms like Google and Twitter base their Asia-Pacific engineering teams here, and require highly skilled product managers and artificial intelligence scientists, who are globally scarce, he added. Google is also working with the Government to train up to 3,000 Singaporeans for roles in growth areas like digital marketing and cloud technology.

Local unicorns like Grab and Sea started with and maintain a Singaporean core, but with their rapid international expansion, they too need a strong complement of regional and global talent to be able to compete, Mr Iswaran said, adding their wider reach allows their Singaporean employees to venture overseas and gain global experience.

There are also large local enterprises like Singtel, with a high proportion of locals, but which increasingly seek out global talent to complement their Singaporean core as they grow abroad and branch into new areas such as cybersecurity and cloud-based services, he noted.

Then there are IT services companies, which play a key role in supporting other sectors, but where there is more that can and will be done to reduce concentration and over-reliance on foreign manpower while strengthening the pipeline of jobs for Singaporeans, he said.

On suggestions from some MPs to offshore some of these jobs, Mr Iswaran said that this is not straightforward and the scope for remote work could work against Singapore.

He added: "Our efforts to embrace openness must be matched by an equal, if not greater, effort to achieve an equitable distribution of the benefits and the access to opportunities, to preserve a sense of fairness."

Mr Iswaran noted that trust is key to striking this balance between staying open and inclusive.

"Our citizens must know that the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans are always our priority, that we have their back. Equally, our international partners must know that we are not just fair-weather friends, that we have the political will to stay the course," he said, adding that Parliament, too, has a duty to build this trust.

"We have painstakingly built an open and inclusive economy that is able to create opportunities for Singaporeans by welcoming competitive enterprises and talent. It is a precious asset that we must not squander."

Ministers take NCMP Leong Mun Wai to task over remarks about DBS chief Piyush Gupta not being ‘homegrown’
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran and Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung sparred with Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai yesterday over remarks in his maiden speech.

The Progress Singapore Party NCMP had on Tuesday said he was "deeply disappointed" that DBS Bank did not have a home-grown chief executive. The bank's current CEO, Mr Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2009.

Joining the debate on the President's Address yesterday, Mr Iswaran told the House he was troubled by Mr Leong's comment.

"By all means, let us passionately argue the case to do more for Singaporeans," he said in his speech. "But, as parliamentarians, let us also be careful about what our words convey; in this case, the message we send to those who - to paraphrase Mr S. Rajaratnam - have chosen out of conviction to become citizens of Singapore."


Mr Iswaran made the point that building trust with Singapore's international partners is the duty of not only the Government and public service, but also of Parliament. "What we say, but also what we actively advocate in this House, and ultimately what we do, are all keenly watched," he said.

"We have painstakingly built an open and inclusive economy that is able to create opportunities for Singaporeans by welcoming competitive enterprises and talent. It is a precious asset that we must not squander."

Mr Leong replied by saying his party is committed to an open and inclusive society and economy, but differs with the Government on issues relating to foreign workers and jobs. He said his party would like to see "a cap on the foreigners, at least for the immediate future, and to ensure there is skills transfer".

Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin then cut Mr Leong off and asked if he was seeking a clarification or making a new speech.

Mr Leong said: "I want to ask the minister whether the debate that we are conducting over the last few days, when we are questioning certain issues, rebalancing certain issues that we are looking for, is against the spirit that he is trying to explain to us just now."

Replying, Mr Iswaran said the process of reviewing and evolving Singapore's manpower policy is an "ongoing venture". "It is an evolutionary effort because it has to respond to the economic environment, the population's needs and concerns, and we have to then adapt and move along."

The issue is not with the process, Mr Iswaran said, but the message Mr Leong's speech sends.

"The issue is when we lament that a Singaporean occupying a certain position is somehow not homegrown, then I think we really have to ask ourselves the question: As parliamentarians, as elected representatives, what is the message we are sending to our citizens?"

The minister also asked what message Mr Leong was sending to those who have chosen to become Singaporeans, their spouses and their children.

"The question I would put to Mr Leong is, after this debate and all the information that has been shared, does he still lament that DBS does not have a home-grown CEO?

"And does he acknowledge that... much has been done in the organisation and there is in fact a large number of Singaporeans at the senior levels?"

Mr Leong replied that he would "still hold on to (his) disappointment".

"Why didn't the Government in the process put in certain safeguards or certain other rules to ensure that we have skills transfer and... ensure that Singaporeans will be groomed to take over the job?"

He added: "I don't think it will be taken very negatively by the international community. Singapore is open enough.

"Foreigners know that we are very, very open. In fact, if we fail to do certain things to safeguard the interests of Singaporeans, I am afraid we may be laughed at."


Mr Ong then rose to respond to Mr Leong, reiterating several points from his own speech on Tuesday.

He noted that he had traced Singapore's journey of building up its finance sector over the last 50 years, starting with bringing in foreign expertise and growing local talent to today's situation where "many of our own rose up to take senior positions".

Mr Ong said this approach is the best way to serve Singaporeans, and cautioned against limiting Singapore to being a "big fish in a pond".

"Open up to the lagoon, open up to the sea, have a much more exciting, diverse ecosystem, but invest in our own people, hold our own. That is what we have been doing for decades.

"(We) never reached a stage where we say the only way to achieve this is to set a quota, set a rule: it must be a Singaporean CEO, born here, before we declare success. I think that would be a wrong approach."

Mr Iswaran reiterated that Parliament has to be a voice of reason.

"Don't take that lightly because what we say cannot be unsaid. It is there for the record, for the future, and everyone - Singaporeans, new citizens or Singapore-born, others who are here - will all be looking at this.

"And I think we in this House as elected representatives must hold ourselves up to a higher standard. If we don't, then I think we fail our duties as Members of Parliament, and I think we ultimately do a disservice to Singaporeans."

Ong Ye Kung explains why median wage band of Singaporeans in financial sector is lower than those of PRs, foreigners
Financial institutions often hire foreigners for specialised, global roles
By Joanna Seow, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

In the financial sector, Singaporeans in the middle of the income spectrum for citizens earn less than permanent residents and foreigners at the same point in their income spectrums.

Monetary Authority of Singapore board member Ong Ye Kung told Parliament yesterday that for Singaporeans, the median wage band is $6,000 to $8,000 a month, while for PRs and foreigners, it is $8,000 to $10,000.

In senior level positions, about half of Singaporeans and half of foreigners earn above $30,000 a month, while almost two-thirds of PRs do so, he said, adding that these sets of data are "as one would expect".

The reason is financial institutions often bring in higher-earning foreigners to perform specialised, or regional and global roles.

Also, Singapore's rules constrain the inflow of foreigners at the lower end, said Mr Ong, who is the Transport Minister.

This means a larger share of foreigners tend to be earning higher wages and consequently, the median would be at a higher level too.

Also, foreigners with impressive profiles and track records in Singapore would be expected to be more successful in attaining PR status.

"In other words, this data shows outcomes which reflect the fact that we regulate the inflow of foreigners, and apply selective criteria in granting PR to those who were previously foreign PMEs (professionals, managers and executives)," he said.

"If there was no regulation to control the inflow of Employment Pass holders, and no criteria and conditions for PRs based on their track records, these earning differentials will naturally narrow or disappear."

He was responding to Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC), during question-and-answer time, on the breakdown of the monthly salary for Singaporeans, PRs and foreigners in the financial sector at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles.

Mr Ong said such a breakdown would not be meaningful. The reason is a foreigner and a Singaporean at the same percentile of their respective wage spectrums could be doing very different jobs and thus earning different salaries.

On Tuesday, when he addressed concerns about whether there are enough opportunities for Singaporeans in the financial sector, he said in the debate on the President's Address that the absolute number of Singaporeans in senior roles had grown from 1,700 to 2,600 from 2014 to last year.

Yesterday, replying to Mr Chua who had asked about efforts to help Singaporean middle managers move up into senior management roles, Mr Ong said the approach should be to be open to the world and grow as a global financial centre, while investing in developing Singaporeans and working with financial institutions to do so.

"If we keep saying let's just be a lake, shut ourselves out from the lagoon, and the lagoon shut itself out from the sea, we will always be a small pond."

He added: "You can develop your middle management to take up senior positions but your market will be small."

About 400 firms on watch list for likely discrimination against Singaporeans: Manpower Minister Josephine Teo
No Temasek-linked firms among 400 on hiring watch list
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

About 400 companies are being scrutinised by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for potentially discriminating against Singaporeans in their hiring.

These employers, which make up the Fair Consideration Framework watch list, have a higher share of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) compared with their industry peers, or a high concentration of employees from a single foreign nationality source, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in Parliament yesterday.

Businesses on the watch list have their applications for Employment Passes delayed or rejected until they buck up.

In the meantime, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) will help them improve their human resource practices.

No Temasek-linked companies have been put on the watch list, Mrs Teo said. And the reason is not that they were given any special concession or treatment, but because the proactive surveillance the ministry carried out did not pick them up, she added.

The minister was replying to Workers' Party MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC).

About 10 MPs asked about efforts to ensure fair employment for Singaporeans, including some who, Mrs Teo said, had already filed questions on the topic for the next Parliament sitting, which is expected to be next month.

The topic was also intensely covered in the five-day debate this week on the President's Address.

Mrs Teo said that after Tafep intervenes, many companies exit the watch list within a year. But they continue to be watched and will be put back on the watch list if they revert to their old patterns of hiring and have a skewed workforce profile.

Of the 1,200 firms scrutinised since 2016, less than 10 per cent were uncooperative and have had their work pass privileges suspended, meaning they cannot hire foreigners. They remain on the watch list.

She further said that while MOM is stepping up enforcement efforts to ensure fair hiring, it does not intend to name the companies on the watch list - which some MPs have called for.

The reason is that MOM's goal is to get companies to do better in their hiring of local PMETs, not to frustrate them till they leave Singapore or close down, which would affect all their existing local workers as well, she added.

"The actions that we take must be proportional, and it must also not create so much difficulties for the existing PMETs in their workforce, who are local and would very much like to keep their jobs."

Mrs Teo also told the House that her ministry will continue to look at better ways to quickly identify, without mistake, possible discriminatory companies.

She stressed that the companies on the watch list have not flouted any rules.

They were picked up through scrutiny of their workforce composition and how they have responded to applicants for jobs posted on the portal.

She made the point when replying to Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), who had suggested using a "mystery shopper" approach to test whether companies have a clear pattern of rejecting certain applications even at the early stage of perusing their resume.

The ministry's "proactive surveillance" has uncovered more companies than complaints have, she added.

Mrs Teo also cautioned against always assuming employers are not trying to do their part, have something to hide and do not face any difficulties.

Employers have said they run into very serious challenges in reaching out to potential job seekers, she added.

"So, we have to take a balanced approach and ask ourselves, what is the combination of actions that will be most helpful to the businesses, which, in turn, will be more helpful in expanding opportunities for our own people."

Her ministry is constantly trying to strike that balance, she said.

Government and Singaporeans need to work hand in hand to solve problems, says Desmond Lee
They can offer ideas and decide what they want to work on as Govt supports them, says minister
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

Singaporeans have to work hand in hand with the Government to solve problems and pursue fresh ideas together, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said yesterday. It is not about the Government setting the agenda all the time, then seeking input from the public, he said.

"Instead, the community comes up with ideas and decides what they want to work on, while the Government supports them," said Mr Lee, who is also Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration.

He cited the example of the Youth Mental Well-being Network set up in February. It is open to anyone who wants to sign up, and more than 1,000 people have done so.

Mr Lee said the Government gave the network space to shape its own agenda.

"One participant asked me what the Government aimed to achieve through this network. I said that we did not want to predetermine where the network would go," he added.

Therefore, some participants have stepped up and volunteered to drive the process, and the network has crafted problem statements and raised eight areas of interest that they want to dive into, Mr Lee said.

Another example is Alliances for Action - industry-led coalitions in the economic domain that aim to quickly develop and test new ideas of growth.

One Alliance for Action project on supply chain digitalisation has organised seven workshops to engage nearly 50 parties across the supply chain. In this case, the industry takes the lead with the Government as an active partner, said Mr Lee.

Since June, a new action network for the social sector - the Beyond Covid-19 task force - has been formed, he added.

The task force was born of a desire by the National Council of Social Service and social service agencies to come together and work on common challenges, and develop a social sector that can effectively meet emerging social needs post-Covid-19, he said.

As more themes emerge from conversations between the Government and Singaporeans, more action networks can be formed in the months ahead, said Mr Lee.

He called for all Singaporeans to be part of efforts to continue building towards a better Singapore. One aspect that will need collective action is in building a greener and more environmentally sustainable Singapore, he added.

Mr Lee said: "It is an existential challenge for us. There is no vaccine for climate change, and as an island city, we are especially vulnerable to its consequences, such as rising sea levels and increasing temperatures."

That is why the country is doubling down on efforts to be low-carbon and climate-resilient, such as by planting one million trees, making buildings, towns and the transport network green, and pushing for the use of more renewable energy like solar power.

"We need everyone to be part of this effort - to reduce the energy we use, reduce the waste we produce and care collectively for our environment," said Mr Lee.

He added that the nation is entering a period of great stress and unpredictability, and Singaporeans are understandably concerned.

"But we are starting from a position of strength, learning from our past experiences in fighting disease outbreaks, drawing on fiscal reserves that we have built up over decades and generations, and most importantly, standing united in the face of challenges and adversity," he said.

"More than ever, in these times, we need all hands on deck to steady the ship. Every Singaporean can contribute in one way or another," he added.

He called on youth to contribute their energy, ideas, creativity and willingness to challenge the status quo in areas such as climate change, new applications for digital technology and helping the low-income and vulnerable.

For older Singaporeans, their deep experience, wisdom and fighting spirit will be needed, while enterprises and workers have to be nimble to keep up with the changes and transformations.

Community partners, with their extensive networks, can be first responders who can identify and befriend those facing challenges, with their enthusiasm, spirit and understanding of the ground, said Mr Lee.

"Singapore Together is one of the rallying cries and the spirit that will guide us through this crisis: Our commitment to leave no one behind, making space for differing views and doing our part."

Government agrees in principle to live-stream Parliament sittings, will study details: S. Iswaran
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

The Government has agreed in principle to live-stream parliamentary proceedings, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said yesterday.

He told the House that his ministry will study the technical and implementation details, and make an announcement soon.

While he said the Government still holds its earlier reservations about live streaming, the minister noted that global and technological trends have made online streaming commonplace and seen legislatures in other countries live-streaming proceedings.

In May, then Leader of the House Grace Fu rejected renewed calls for live streaming, noting that there are other avenues for members of the public to watch the proceedings.

All speeches and exchanges in Parliament are recorded and made available online, with video clips uploaded within hours of each sitting. People can also choose to view the Hansard or attend parliamentary sittings in person.

"These already give us the full benefits of transparency, accountability and accessibility," Mr Iswaran noted.

The Government, he said, has been reluctant to go further with live streaming for both practical and policy reasons.

Demand for such live broadcasts, even of major speeches, is generally low at only 10 per cent of that of free-to-air television news.

And debate in Parliament - a forum for serious debate on national issues - should be vigorous, but with a sober tone, he said.

"An element of cut and thrust is unavoidable, even necessary, because members want to show Singaporeans that their concerns are expressed, and questions asked and answered in Parliament," he said.

"However, it is equally important that members come to grips with the issues and their complexities and not simply play to the gallery. Live broadcasts risk compromising this."

But in the spirit of engaging with Singaporeans, the Government will study how to implement live streaming of Parliament, he said.

"Our aim, as always, will be to achieve transparency, accountability and accessibility while preserving the integrity and dignity of parliamentary proceedings."

Mr Iswaran noted that MPs should not just be the voice of the people in Parliament.

They must also be the voice of hope, and the voice of reason, he added. "To be candid about the challenges we face, honest about the choices and trade-offs, not just about what we want but also what we have to give up to get it, and ultimately what we believe to be in the long-term interest of our citizens."

This is something that MPs should not take lightly, he said.

"What we say cannot be unsaid. It is there for the record for the future and everyone - Singaporeans, new citizens or Singapore-born, others who are here - will all be looking at this," he added.

"And I think we in this House as elected representatives must hold ourselves up to a higher standard. If we don't, then I think we fail our duties as Members of Parliament, and I think we ultimately do a disservice to Singaporeans."

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said he welcomed the change, and acknowledged the Government's concerns.

Giving his assurance to the minister, the Workers' Party chief said: "It is our view that that element of theatre will be exposed also and the public will conclude fairly quickly, if not immediately... who is here to turn Parliament into a theatre and who is here to be serious about Parliament as a forum where serious matters are discussed."

Mr Iswaran responded that the experience of other countries does not give Singapore "a lot of reason to be optimistic in terms of the tone and nature of debates in Parliament, and the impact such streaming or broadcasting will have".

"Is there a causal relationship? We don't know for sure. But there is reason to have concerns, and that is why I articulated what I did," he said.

"So, what it means is that at the end of the day, it is not axiomatic one way or the other, and it depends on all of us as parliamentarians to maintain the decorum, the dignity and the integrity of our proceedings through rigorous debate based on facts and focused on the long-term interests of Singaporeans."

Labour MP Patrick Tay highlights debate's focus on jobs for Singaporeans and support for low-wage workers in round-up speech
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

Jobs are a core priority for Singapore, and labour MP Patrick Tay is encouraged by the calls from MPs and pledges by ministers over the past week to ensure that Singaporeans are treated fairly in a challenging economy, and that low-wage workers get the support they need.

In a speech wrapping up five days of robust debate, Mr Tay (Pioneer), who is assistant secretary-general at the National Trades Union Congress, noted the many MPs who argued for more to be done to strengthen the Singaporean core.

"In fact, I was doing a count as we progressed through the speeches - and the phrase 'Singaporean core' has been mentioned over 40 times in the last four days alone," he said.

MPs had sought assurances that safeguarding jobs for Singaporeans will continue to be a key focus, even as they acknowledged that Singapore cannot fully look inwards.

Mr Tay was heartened that Manpower Minister Josephine Teo had said her ministry will be reviewing companies whose Singaporean core is weakening, while Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung had said the Monetary Authority of Singapore will ensure fair hiring practices while grooming Singaporeans to be leaders and specialists in the financial services sector.

Said Mr Tay: "I take heart that every call to strengthen our Singaporean core made in these chambers has not been a call to divide, but one to unite."

He also summed up what 74 MPs spoke about in the past five days.

The lively debate saw People's Action Party and opposition MPs cross swords on topics such as compassionate policymaking and a review of race-based policies, while championing issues such as a safer online space, a more environmentally friendly Singapore and greater support for people with disabilities.

Other MPs raised the importance of ensuring environmental and economic sustainability, and the need for transformation of businesses and the economy.

They highlighted that equipping the workforce with the right skills and mindsets is crucial for driving this transformation, said Mr Tay.

"As we review and formulate strategies for industries to transform and diversify, we will need to create an even stronger linkage in the form of skills maps, job redesign, job retraining and reskilling of our workers to take on these jobs," he said.

Other topics raised include a strong call for a fair, just, inclusive and cohesive society.

Mr Tay noted that the new social compact must be practical, while balancing the needs of Singaporeans in the areas of social security, affordable and quality housing, healthcare, education, public infrastructure and the environment with their aspirations and dreams.

Several MPs also spoke up for women, acknowledging the need for recognition of the trade-offs and sacrifices they make in their careers, and of the bias and struggles they face in re-entering the workforce after having children.

Mr Tay said he was "especially reminded" of the issue by the example of Oasis Water Park in Nee Soon East, cited by Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) to make a point on gender stereotypes.

Mr Ng said in his speech on Wednesday that when the park opened last year, the diaper changing room was installed only in the women's toilet, and when asked why, the builders said women were the ones who changed diapers. The issue was resolved with the installation of a second diaper changing room in the toilet for the disabled.

Said Mr Tay: "Related to gender and poverty is a larger conversation about discrimination in our society. We need to expand our empathy to our minority communities."

He added that deep trust and mutual respect are needed among Singaporeans, who have to respect Singapore's plurality. "Our first president Yusof Ishak did not see our diversity of race, language, religion as an obstacle to progress. He saw this as our strength. He saw this diversity as exactly what would make Singapore dynamic and progressive."

Singapore should continue in this direction, he added, urging citizens to come together to build a liveable and sustainable society and country founded on mutual trust, with opportunities for all.

Mr Tay quoted the lyrics of a tribute song, Singapore, Unite As One, by Fairfield Methodist Primary School Primary 6 pupil Jacob Neo: "But we'll be together through thick and the thin, as one country we'll fight this virus and win. We'll fight with our hearts and our minds and our souls, protecting this island where we call our home."

Added the MP: "Let us continue to have faith and be of good courage, listen well, look out for one another. Stay strong, and communicate with grace and empathy."

Sharper questioning in Parliament to come, but MPs should uphold spirit of constructive discourse: Leader of the House Indranee Rajah
She says new MPs on both sides put up 'good showing' in past week, which augurs well
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

With greater diversity in Parliament, sharper questioning and more robust exchanges will be par for the course, said Leader of the House Indranee Rajah.

Some of that has already been borne out in the past week, she told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday, with MPs seeking more clarifications on speeches.

Summing up the five-day debate on the President's Address, which saw 31 new MPs making their maiden speeches, she said new MPs on both sides of the House put up a "good showing", which augurs well for the 14th Parliament.

While she had earlier warned against greater polarisation in the House, Ms Indranee said MPs had, by and large, kept to the spirit of constructive discourse.

"Many of the ideas and suggestions were within a broad central mainstream range. You had some outliers on both sides, but nothing so extreme that you could say it was pulling society apart," she added.

That said, she noted that there had been points where MPs or ministers had to sound cautionary notes against certain lines of arguments or points made that could have consequences down the line.

On the prospect of more robust debate, she said: "What I hope will happen is that everyone gets better at it, in terms of time management, and in terms of really being able to crystallise the issues."

Ms Indranee, who is Second Minister for Finance and National Development, expects sharper questioning on specific Bills and policies in the months ahead when the political parties disagree.

"But difference is okay, diversity is okay, provided that you uphold the dignity of the House," she said.

Constructive discourse can be achieved in the House, she said, as long as all MPs remember to put the well-being of Singaporeans and Singapore as their foremost priority.

"I think if you keep that as your firm focus, then you can agree to disagree. You can have impassioned debates, but it is not, and should not be, personal," she added.

Commenting on the Government giving its in-principle agreement to live-stream parliamentary proceedings, she said that while it still holds reservations about the move, it is also cognisant of people's appetite for getting information speedily in today's technological age.

The authorities will thus have to study how to implement this in a way that works well.

"You don't want members playing to the gallery, but what you do want is people to be able to watch and to see, oh, this is how Parliament works," she said. "So, you have to hold these things in balance."

Ms Indranee also responded to suggestions put up by Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) during the debate to improve parliamentary processes. Among other things, he had proposed that Parliament invest in a new IT system that can check the attendance of MPs, establish a parliamentary record of the outcome of MPs' proposals that ministers had agreed to study, and also provide the option of taking an MP's speech as read and making it public to boost efficiency.

While Ms Indranee said several of his ideas are worth considering, she also noted that it may not be feasible to fully implement all of them.

For instance, while copies of speeches could be made available online as soon as they are delivered, she still sees value in having MPs deliver speeches in the House.

"People need to hear you and they need to hear your conviction - because otherwise you could have a brilliantly written speech by somebody else, and it doesn't reflect your voice," she said.

It could also be tricky to establish a record of the outcome of MPs' proposals, she noted.

For example, government policies may have taken reference from various ideas put forth by MPs, but come out in a different form from what was proposed. The Government, however, generally gives credit to those who have contributed ideas and suggestions to a policy, she added.

Reason, compassion and courage needed to move conversation forward
Foreign manpower, race, and building a fair and just society dominated debate this week
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2020

Three policy issues largely dominated this week's Parliament debate.

First, foreign manpower. MPs had several proposals: Further raising the minimum pay for sectors like infocomm technology and professional services, imposing manpower quotas, naming recalcitrant firms, and removing preferential tax rates or not awarding them public sector contracts, among others.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay urged members to rethink the notion that fair employment legislation is not investment-friendly, as it has not stopped the likes of London and New York from being vibrant financial centres.

Responding to calls for such legislation, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said it is a blunt but not "unthinkable" tool.

While the Government is open to all options, she explained that proactive surveillance has in fact been carried out under the Fair Consideration Framework.

Second, on race, the Government reiterated that it is premature to say that Singapore has achieved the ideal of a race-blind society.

It may have become less race-conscious, but it has not arrived at a "post-racial" state, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.

But the opposition felt that race-based policies, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy and ethnic self-help groups, could nevertheless be reviewed.

"My point was that we should not keep talking ourselves down or be held back by the past," said Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim.

Third, building a fair and just society. Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman said society must have a consensus on what is a basic and reasonable standard of living the Government can commit to provide, bearing in mind that increases in support are paid for by everyone through taxes.

The WP's Associate Professor Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) proposed a minimum wage, although he did not suggest specific numbers.

Various PAP MPs pointed out plans to expand the existing Progressive Wage Model, which is a minimum wage-plus formula differentiated across sectors.

Beyond substance, the debate also revealed fundamental differences in approach between the incumbent and the opposition.

The PAP ministers stressed the need for flexible pragmatism, fiscal prudence, and evidence-based policies.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday that debates must be based on principles and fact, and guided by shared ideas and goals. These include protecting Singapore's security, growing its economy, and securing its future.

"If we do that, then there's a basis for us to manage the inherent tensions in our system, and for politics to work out productively," he said.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran urged members to not just be a voice of the people, but also a voice of reason - "honest about the choices and trade-offs - not just about what we want, but also what we have to give up... and ultimately what we believe to be in the long-term interests of our citizens".

On the other hand, the opposition argued that existing institutions and policies need not be broken in order to consider new models of thinking and working.

Ms Lim, for instance, called for an open conversation on whether better outcomes can be achieved by amalgamating ethnic self-help groups under one national umbrella.

Others within its ranks, in particular Progress Singapore Party's Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, took a harder Singaporean-first stance on the issue of hiring chief executives of financial institutions.

What does this mean for the future of Parliament debate?

Some positives have emerged, but a few areas can be improved.

First, MPs are engaging one another better, with sharper questioning as well as replies on both sides.

Ideally, this means less reliance on stock phrases and prepared speeches, and a heightened need to question long-held assumptions.

Second, they are acknowledging more openly that both sides wish to work towards the common good, even if they disagree on how to do so.

The Prime Minister set the benchmark for this on Wednesday, when Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh spoke of fairness in politics and the public's desire to have an opposition in the House.

PM Lee took pains to stress that he did not undervalue Mr Singh's motivations, his passion or his desire to do right by Singaporeans.

He then went on to explain in detail, the underlying principles and mindset by which the Government decides whether to tap the nation's reserves.

But it is still early days.

The adversarial dynamic that is inherent in the parliamentary system can go wrong. Already, there was some closing of ranks on the more thorny issues this week.

On foreign manpower and minimum wage, MPs fired salvos at one another in rapid succession, without necessarily making headway on both issues.

Also, time constraints mean that Parliament may not be the best platform to think things through and broker consensus.

On this, it is worth noting Mr Singh's suggestion to have more Select Committees, given that currently, government parliamentary committee members come from only the PAP.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok SMC) also made two notable proposals: First, taking MP speeches as read, so that time in the House is spent on genuine debate and points of clarification.

Second, a parliamentary record of MPs' proposals that ministers agreed to study, to track whether they followed through on their holding replies.

The Prime Minister has called on members of the House to raise their game.

The opposition cannot only ask questions but must propose alternative policies, and prepare facts and figures to back them up.

The incumbent must consider its proposals seriously, and work out a mechanism to follow up on them where feasible.

Some form of policy sandbox may be needed on issues where a consensus cannot be reached, but where both sides can agree on the need to explore further.

After all, public unhappiness in recent years has gone beyond objective indicators of progress such as income and education - which on most counts have improved - to encompass the "felt" reality of Singaporeans, that incremental and cautious solutions may not adequately address.

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Thursday that no person should assume that he has a monopoly over compassion.

If both sides can marry reason with compassion and courage, and make a sincere effort to move the conversation forward, this little red dot can continue to defy the odds and emerge stronger.

Opening of 14th Parliament of Singapore on 24 August 2020

PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the Debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President on 2 September 2020

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